So, starting a new and exciting series of mini-reviews (in a broad fashion) of various physical archives I went along to the Black Cultural Archives today. Before I went I looked at their online catalogue and was confounded when none of my search criteria came back. I ended up typing in the word ‘photograph’ which meant of course that every photographic image, including photos of objects such as paintings and sculptures and various dull things came back which I had to scroll through, but that was no surprise. It’s a common archival complaint. What really was annoying was that every time I had looked at an items individual page and tried to go back to your last place instead it took you right back to the beginning of the search, meaning you had to scroll through everything again! ARGH. I had already been in touch with Hannah (something I recommend that you do as they are only open one day a week as of this writing and places usually fill up quick) and told her the photos I was interested in looking at so she had them ready for me when I arrived. The BCA is located in Kennington which is very close to the Elephant and Castle shopping centre and is extremely inconspicuous. In fact their sign appeared to have been hijacked by the Portuguese language school in the floor below who had put up a photocopied sign for their business over the BCA's! The building is very dated and falling apart (the automatic door wasn’t working and the toilet was being used as a storeroom) so I am sure they are really looking forward to the move to the new site next year.
When I arrived upstairs I had to sign a few forms including a photography agreement and pay two pounds for the privilege, which I haven’t been asked for in an archive before. I had a good chat to Janet Brown, a colleague of mine form the V&A who is working also at BCA now. Lovely woman. Always a pleasure and she gave me some top tips on some other matters so I felt like my trip had already been worth it.
After that I sat down and Hannah gave mea large grey box, one at a time: Each box opened like a folder and had a binder in its centre into which was placed thick A4 clear pockets holding something in the form of a photograph. There were many envelopes within the clear pockets, which held maybe one or two negative strips each. The strange thing was that they often had completely different catalogue numbers to their counterpart prints, so that where a negative might have an accession number of Photo/28.1 and the print taken from it Photo/28.2 they would instead have completely different numbers and be found vastly apart in the file! Madness. A lot of the items also were merely photocopies out of books. I’m sure the books are very interesting and the images are all very interesting but unfortunately many of them also related specifically to African American history and not BLACK BRITISH HISTORY.
I understand that these are a lot of minor quibbles but they do add up and all in all I have to admit that, in terms of photo-research I was rather disappointed. I was and I wasn’t looking for anything in particular (I didn’t expect them to have anything in relation to what I was looking for so was prepared for a bit of a sojourn) but I felt that these three boxes represent the whole of the BCA’s photograph and image holdings, which is a bit sad really. I applaud them for their efforts as what they are doing at BCA is obviously a huge undertaking – not to mention that the archives are only as good as the items that are donated to them – and the staff were all friendly and busy getting on with their work and having meetings so I feel like I should cut them a bit of slack. I guess I had certain expectations having previously met some of the staff and I guess I still have this semi-romantic idea of archives being these repositories of power (copyright John Tagg) but more and more I find that they are often just one old man sat alone in a tiny room surrounded by boxes of useless stuff.
Disclaimer: That’s a metaphor btw, I don’t actually think that anyone at the BCA could be considered an ‘old man’.