In summer 2021 the ETS team met up with A Bit Lit’s Emma Whipday to discuss the work of Engendering the Stage. We talked about failed performance, the porousness of theatre, the politics of domestic performance, rope-dancing, tumblers, sword-dancing, performing masculinity, dynamic femininity, androgynous clothing, the famous ‘Jumping Judy’, coconut shies, forbidden students, The Roaring Girl, the Fortune playhouse, female shareholders, archival research in an age of Covid, practice-as-research, and more…
Many thanks to the A Bit Lit team for hosting us! You can check out the work they’re doing to create and share research and creative communities at https://abitlit.co/
This blog is the second part of Engendering the Stage’s interview with Shakespeare in the Royal Collection (ShaRC). In Part 1 we discussed questions about lockdown closures and archival access. In part 2 we discuss the merits of the “digital archive”.
THE LIMITS OF THE DIGITAL
Lucy Munro: You mentioned earlier that you’ve had to change plans around other parts of the projects and that the exhibition that was planned to be a physical exhibition has moved online. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Sally Barnden: We were at the point of estimating loan requests when the pandemic began and it became apparent, for various reasons, that a physical exhibition just wasn’t going to happen. We had quite a detailed account of what we wanted to be in that exhibition and how it would be structured and what the rationale was for all of those objects. So then we reconceived it for an online space. Which has various effects – one of which was that, when we were thinking beyond the Royal Collection about what objects we might want to contextualize, we were suddenly able to be a lot more ambitious, because the costs of packing up a big painting, shipping it to a location, and insuring it, were no longer a factor. We’re now able to think in terms of contextualizing things with paintings, rather than with small prints after paintings, and that kind of thing.
But it does also change the way that the narrative of the exhibition works, because if you imagine these things in a space, then things like scale and colour have a lot more impact on how the different parts of the exhibition impact the viewer. We were going to have this exhibition which would have a few very big oil paintings and some very small things that we think are very interesting, but maybe were at risk of getting lost in a room. We can now make those objects equal size – for better and worse because you lose the sense of scale, but you can also make the smaller things pop a little more.
LM: Your project – of all the projects we’re talking to – has the most art-historical aspects to it. We’re dealing with archival materials, and we’re interested in the physical objects, but the outputs of the project won’t depend on them in quite the same ways as maybe they will in your project. I wondered whether there was anything else to say about that – the problems of going virtual when you have intellectual investments in the ‘thing’ itself?
SB: I can say it’s certainly been an issue on the cataloguing side because one of our main outputs is a website, which will be effectively a database of all the objects. I mention things like inscriptions and describing bindings but scale is lost when you’re describing everything in a virtual realm, both in the exhibition where it will now seem like a three-metre-high painting and three-inch-high photograph are equivalent objects in some way and while we are asking for dimensions of everything, a small bit of text that says “this is three centimetres high” doesn’t really register in the same way that it would, if you were actually in the same space as the objects.
Kate Retford: Yeah. We’ve got that photograph of Princess Helena Victoria as Ophelia.
SB: She was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter.
KR: I remember when we saw that in the archive and we knew intellectually it was tiny. But the scale of it only really hits you when you see it in person, and that is a real shame for the project, particularly for the exhibition, because, you know we’re losing a lot about the materiality and the individuality of the objects. It’s a particular shame because it’s such an incredibly diverse body of material. I’ve not worked on anything which has such engagement with, you know, print, dec[orative] arts, painting, architecture, sculpture, and what we like to call “chod”! There’s so much to say about material and scale and hierarchies of genre, media. And I think we’re having a particular struggle with the digital exhibition because you know the [web design] company want to have neat identical little square views onto objects before you then click through and I’m saying “no, you’ve got see the whole object straight off.” And then we’ve had discussions about “is there any way we can give people a sense of relative scale? Because they’re going to think this miniature’s the same size as this full-length painting.” And there are various ways you can try and communicate that but none of them are great really. So that, I think, is a particularly big challenge.
Gordon McMullan: Another fundamental difference is that when we were going to have an exhibition at the Globe, we knew we’d have a captive audience of about half a million people who were going to come to the Globe in the course of the three months that the show would have been on. Anyone doing a Globe tour would be offered, for an extra quid or something, the chance to have a look at the exhibition. A proportion of them would have done that, and then we would have got our impact* feedback from those people. Well, it’s a touch more tricky when it’s an online exhibition and zero additional funding to market it!
KR: One of the things that was going to be great about the Globe was that a lot of people would have seen the exhibition who would never have gone to see an exhibition of that sort, normally. So we would have had greater impact. The danger with the online exhibition is that the people who look at it will be the people who think “oh, Shakespeare!” The Globe is so much more on the tourist trail that I think we would have got sort of more surprising reactions from people.
GM: That was always the hope – that we would have audiences who wouldn’t naturally go to a royal palace or a royal exhibition coming to see it anyway.
KR: And it would have been global.
Clare McManus: That’s really interesting, because we’re keen to find out how the pandemic has affected archive projects in terms of questions of access. Not only how we get into things but also in terms of bringing things out of the archives for other people. The universal panacea is often seen as digitization, but your experience is saying something different. It can actually be harder to gather a new, more diverse, and inclusive audience for the kind of things you want to show in the virtual environment. [But] if you have a building that’s already associated with some kind of openness towards Shakespeare and some kind of global audience . . .
GM: Yeah, the Globe exhibition wouldn’t have required anyone deliberately going to see it: they would have just kind of wandered through it while coming to visit the Globe, so it didn’t require any marketing in that sense; it was just “well, while you’re here, why don’t look at this?” So we’re frustrated to have lost that opportunity to reach a really broad audience.
THE ADVANTAGES OF THE DIGITAL
GM: But one particular advantage of the digital exhibition is that it will show objects, most of which are not on public display. Scholars can request to go into the Royal library and see things as long as they’re working on an appropriate project and go through all the security clearances, but the items are not generally visible. It was very much a part of our application to the AHRC that we were seeking to democratize one aspect of this immense collection and to make the holdings more generally visible. The more we show the world the materials that they have, the more subsequent scholars, whether in Shakespeare, whether in art history, will know that those things are there and ask to go and look at them. We don’t think Covid has got in the way of that particular aspiration.
And, of course, the digital exhibition has one advantage over a physical exhibition: it doesn’t conk out after three months. However, we will find out how current such a thing can remain beyond the usual three-month lifespan of an exhibition because it may or it may not.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from it when it comes to impact. There is a diminution when you don’t have, as it were, the real thing, but in terms of, for example, school materials, having the online exhibition available for anyone to look at if they’re doing an EPQ† or whatever – so there are gains. But it’s interesting that we won’t quite be able to quantify the gains until long after the project is over. [And p]rojects with digital outputs will require longevity of impact data acquisition, which is not catered for by the duration of a funded project with a fixed end date.
Erin Julian: There’s been a lot of conversation recently about what hybrid conferences, events, performances might look like in the future. It seems to me that your project raises particular challenges to hybrid work. Has the project team been thinking about what your work would look like in this new, post-Covid world?
SB: In terms of hybridity between sort of real-world experiences and digital experiences, Gordon mentioned one of our outputs, which is these 3D interactive visualizations of spaces at Windsor castle. And we were certainly envisioning those when we started as something which would allow you to interact with these spaces in a different way when you were in the space. So we were imagining that hybridity, if you like, between experiencing the space live and experiencing it digitally and that you would be able to think about that overlay between the room as it is now and the room, as it was in the 19th century and how the spatial politics of that room worked for Shakespeare performances. And then because of the huge interest in 3D visualizations and virtual versions of real spaces that’s happened as a result of the pandemic, people will respond differently to those properties and probably more of them will be experiencing them exclusively as virtual properties. We’ll have to think about how that changes what we, what sort of packaging, we need to give them, what textual guides and introductions are necessary when you’re thinking about those spaces as spaces that you’re experiencing exclusively virtually rather than as a comparison with a real space.
KR: Over the last year everyone’s got much more used to online, and I think people’s dexterity, say, with our visualizations is going to be better because everyone’s spent all year looking at and manipulating things online and [paying attention to] which gallery has got the best whizzy digitized version of its collection so, on the one hand, that facilitates that and on the other hand, I worry that it won’t be quite as distinctive as it would have been? So, and I hadn’t really thought about that, actually, before this this conversation, that that’s a real pro and con side to all this.
CMcM: Brilliant. This is all the time we have. Let’s see what Zoom auto transcription does to our conversation!
*impact under the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, refers to how research affects, changes, or benefits society outside of academia.
†EPQ within the UK’s education system, an additional piece of research that students can undertake alongside their A levels – qualifications taken in the last year of secondary school – for additional credit
When the first lockdown was announced in the UK in March 2020, the ETS team was forced to urgently confront questions connected to archival access. Questions about who has been left out of early modern archives, how and why were already built into our project but became much more pressing. With these issues came broader questions of how we might rebuild inclusive archives and libraries after the pandemic – both ones used by scholars and more generally.
We decided to reflect on our pandemic experience in conversation with other archival projects, to share resources and solutions to some of the obstacles that the pandemic created, and to think about the social and cultural roles that libraries and archives play in research, learning, and community building.
Our first interview is with members of the AHRC-funded project, Shakespeare in the Royal Collection. We spoke with Prof Gordon McMullan (King’s College London), Prof Kate Retford (Birkbeck, University of London), and Dr Sally Barnden (King’s College London). The Royal Librarian approached McMullan early in 2016 to ask if he might include the Royal Collection Trust’s exhibition of Shakespeare-related items from the Royal Collection in the publicity for the Shakespeare400 season (which was led by King’s in partnership with twenty-five major London cultural organizations). In due course, this led McMullan and Barnden (the latter employed for six months by King’s to scope the project) to investigate the Shakespeare-related holdings of the Royal Library, which were for the most part acquired from the 18th century onwards (after a period of dissolution following the death of Charles 1). In McMullan’s words, the project explores “the mutual value that Shakespeare the cultural phenomenon and the Royal Family have had for each other over time”, a relationship which “begins with the accession of the George I”.
McMullan is PI and Retford Co-I, and Barnden and Dr Kirsten Tambling are the project’s postdoctoral fellows who, until Covid closures hit, were working in the Library and Archives at Windsor Castle. The project is both literary and art historical, with McMullan and Barnden (broadly) handling literary historical matters and Retford and Tambling the art history side of things.
The project is hosting an online conference from 17-19 June 2021. Other outputs include a website providing comprehensive details of the RCT’s Shakespeare holdings; a digital exhibition; a set of 3D digital visualizations of three spaces in Windsor castle in which Shakespeare performances have taken place, created by Martin Blazeby in collaboration with Noho, with Globe actors providing voiceovers. Parts of these visualizations will be available to Windsor Castle to use in their visitor experience facilities. The ShaRC team will also release an image- and object-focused collection of essays, developed from the exhibit, of interest to academic and general readerly audiences.
We present an edited transcript of our conversation in two parts. Part 1 discusses Covid-related lockdown closures and questions of archival access. Part 2 will include our conversation on the advantages and limits of the “digital archive”
WORKING IN LOCKDOWN, ADAPTING TO COVID
Erin Julian: We started this interview series as a way of reflecting on the obstacles to archival work during Covid. Can you tell us a bit about what’s happened to you in the past year?
Sally Barnden: Sure. Our project team is located mostly in London, but the vast majority of the material that we’re working with is at Windsor Castle. The Royal Archives themselves were mostly closed last February for cataloguing and inventory reasons. They briefly reopened during the period when we were on strike [the UCU strikes in February and March 2020], and then Covid hit, and Windsor Castle as a whole had to close. So there was a sort of preamble to the pandemic, as far as Windsor Castle was concerned. We were also making quite a lot of use of other archives: the National Art Library at the V&A, the British Library, and the National Archives. So general archival closures were a problem.
I suppose we were lucky insofar as all of these problems started when we were already 18 months into the project, so we had quite a significant archival base, a backlog to work with.
The Royal Archives’ peculiarities shaped our work here. They have very strict rules: you can’t take photographs, as you can these days in most archives, so we probably had taken more thorough notes than we would have done otherwise. So that was kind of a blessing and a curse insofar as we were probably already expecting that it wouldn’t be easy to just pop back in and check things – but also we didn’t have a vast library of archival photographs to refer back to.
Gordon McMullan: We were very, very fortunate that the timing meant that Sally and Kirsten had done the vast bulk of the archival work that was absolutely essential. I mean we originally budgeted to go to Sandringham and Balmoral and various other places to see what was there, and none of that has happened because visits haven’t been feasible.
It turns out, happily, that as far as we know there aren’t in fact major objects there that we absolutely must see, as it were.
POSITIVES OF ARCHIVAL CLOSURES?
SB: This is probably something we would have had to do anyway, but I think Covid moved forward the point where we had to let go of the idea of completely exhaustive coverage of every possible Shakespeare-related thing in the Royal Collection and Royal Archives. That we had to come to a point where we decided that these are our 2000 objects and we’re going to say as many interesting things as we can about them rather than go on reading a million letters in the hope that somebody in passing quotes The Merchant of Venice in a historically interesting way. Becoming aware of our limits early last year rather than later was probably quite useful in the long run.
PUBLIC ACCESS AND THE ROYAL COLLECTION
GM: One of the issues we’ve had throughout – which has nothing to do with Covid – is that these buildings are not places where you can go and have a rummage around and see what you can find. The challenge that Sally and Kirsten have had to deal with throughout has been always being asked by an archivist, “What would you like to see and I’ll go and get it?” And, of course, the truthful answer to that is “I’d like to have a rummage in that cupboard, please!” But you’re not allowed to do that. So that has made it much less likely that we would find something startlingly undiscovered because you can’t ask: “Let me see the thing that nobody knows exists yet.” So Sally and Kirsten have been assiduously seeing what we could get to there.
SB: It’s worth mentioning the Georgian Papers programme (https://gpp.rct.uk/) have helped to cover for the fact that we haven’t had access to so many of these documents. The fact that the Royal Collection Trust had this vast digitization project, which was already well underway, has been really useful. Also the fact that that the Georgian Papers team were engaging with the Royal Archives as a whole meant that there were lists of the kinds of documents that existed, so we were able to slightly break that pattern of the archivist saying “what do you want to see?” and us saying, “well, we don’t know, have you got any of this? No. Have you got any of this? No.” And we were able to go through them slightly more systematically, which did help.
Lucy Munro: Have the Windsor archives actually opened at all since the pandemic began?
SB: No. They closed for Covid, I guess, early March last year, and they haven’t reopened at all. The staff have had access. I think in the first UK lockdown there were very few staff on site at all, and then, more recently, the library and print room staff have been in one day a week, something like that. There have been some staff in the archives, so it’s been possible to check some queries and things.
GM: It’s also worth adding that the Royal Archives and Windsor Castle derive their income from tourists visiting the Castle, which means that during Covid their activities and staffing have necessarily been reduced because they haven’t had the normal income stream from visitors. This has meant that the handful of curators that have been engaged in our project are in fact doing more work to help us than we had anticipated. The senior curators have been photocopying things for us, taking pictures of things for us – which is immensely kind of them!
SB: We’ve been quite lucky in terms of the Royal Collection curators making themselves available by email and by Zoom and putting in a huge number of hours with the objects that we otherwise would have hoped to examine ourselves. We’ve been relying very heavily on impressions of these prints or copies of these books that are in other libraries, where they have been digitized – and obviously that leads to some omissions and misunderstandings. So curators have had to go in and say, “oh no actually this print does have lettering” or “actually our copy has an inscription on the flyleaf that you haven’t mentioned, because you haven’t seen our copy”. It’s been very weird doing this kind of object-based research at so many removes from the objects that were interested in. We’re very grateful to the curators who are doing that work for us right now.
GM: We are also very, very aware of our good fortune in having an AHRC grant and thus being publicly funded for this project, because the Georgian Papers project, for instance, didn’t have that public funding – they had a combination of funding from the States and the Royal Household – and when Covid and lockdown began they weren’t in a position to sustain the formal relationship, whereas RCT has been able to carry on working with us because the funding was public and thus external. So we’ve been very, very fortunate in that respect.
The first half of our conversation ends here. In the second half of our interview, coming soon, the ShaRC team tells us more about working under Covid conditions, how they adapted their planned exhibition to a digital format, and the advantages and limits of the “digital archive”.
As 2021 progresses, Engendering the Stage is reflecting on our past, present, and future, reflecting on the profound difficulties of the last 12 months and some hopeful – even exciting – work the project will be doing as we move forward.
To begin: as we have moved into the Leverhulme-funded arm of the Engendering the Stage project, begun in January 2020, we’re delighted to introduce (at long last!) the new members of our project team. We are thrilled to re-introduce Clare McManus (University of Roehampton) and Lucy Munro (King’s College London), co-investigators of the current project. We are also joined by new team members Mel Harrison (KCL) and Oliver Lewis (Roehampton). Mel’s project considers the intersections of disability and gender roles in representations of femininity in sixteenth-century performance, while Oliver’s research considers the idea of porous masculinity in early modern performance, particularly how dramatic texts experiment with the stability of masculine embodiment, exposing the spectre of immoderate and/or subversive forms of masculine identities that haunt early modern staged subjectivity. Erin Julian joined us as the project’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in March 2020, flying in from Canada only days before the first of the UK’s lockdowns.
In its current formation, the UK branch of ETS has shifted to archival research, working to expand, renew, and revitalise knowledge drawn from original documents connected to early modern theatre and performance – and through that work, opening up wider, more complex, and livelier models of early modern history and performance practice, opening further avenues for early modern women’s, queer, trans, and race studies. ETS of course, continues to be intrinsically connected with Performance as Research (PaR) work: an enriched understanding of the original texts and documents on which PaR is based can only lead to the strengthening of both archival and PaR work. Inevitably, our planned PaR event, a collaboration with Andy Kesson and Box Office Bears, “Ruff Play with Shakespeare”, was cancelled due to the UK’s first lockdown in response to COVID-19. 2020 was a testing time for theatre institutions and, in particular, performers – a test which continues under the present lockdown. With the rollout of vaccines internationally, however, we remain hopeful, and are committed to getting back to this work as soon as safely possible. In the meanwhile, the UK team is occupied looking for materials to bring to PaR scrutiny and to sharing our findings with the rest of the ETS team, Melinda Gough and Peter Cockett in Canada.
While Rome burned? Archival work in 2020
Getting an archival project up and running during a pandemic that closed the archives has been an ongoing challenge, necessitating changes to our working habits, research plan and methodologies (and, sadly, a pause from regular blogging). The obstacles we have faced in reorganising our research in response to shifting rules around on-site work, though, are nothing in comparison to the ongoing traumas of illness and bereavement, and the blighting of lives through racial oppression and economic neglect that came so sharply into view in 2020. But, in a year when the Higher Education sector in the UK seemed close to collapse under the weight of incautious marketisation, our commitment to our students and to the research that fuels university teaching brought the political and the professional emphatically together. We have always known that research-based learning trains students in the skills of critical thinking and the sifting of evidence; we know that it trains them to see their world more clearly, gives them tools of self-expression and expands the horizons of aspiration. But rarely have we understood how necessary those skills are and how much we need our students.
2020 taught us a lot about our students at Roehampton and King’s. Our students are frontline workers, key workers, parents and carers. They have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk from Covid-19 or disabilities that mean that the pandemic restrictions hit them harder than others. They are members of communities that are under-represented in UK Higher Education, who feel the full violence of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and who campaign for BLM and for a clear-sighted teaching of the UK’s history of imperialism and racial violence. Though they may not know it, our students were a constant source of support and sustaining hope for us throughout 2020. It will take a long time for us to forget their remarkable resilience and their commitment to their subjects, regardless of fashion.
2020 has taught us lessons about our own precariousness, but most of all it has taught us about our privilege. We have worked long hours, but we worked (mostly) at home rather than being forced onto public transport and into risky working practices. When the national lockdown ended in late June, two of the major London archival collections we planned to work with – The National Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives – were able to take measures to re-open their reading room services. We are incredibly grateful to these archives – as well as the Dulwich Archives, where we have located some delightful finds around the Fortune Theatre – for the astonishing efforts they made ensuring their buildings were safe. These archives offered us havens of normality, let us read early modern documents as our masks steamed up our glasses and our scarves kept the chill of the open windows away. We have felt lucky to be based in London and to be able to travel in relative safety to these national holdings, to make full use of our allotted weekly and monthly appointments at these archives despite shortened opening hours (provided, of course, that we won our ‘Tweedy Glastonbury’ tickets in the weekly Monday morning online race for a seat in TNA!). And – if this had to happen – we’re remarkably lucky that this happened when it did, when advances in digitisation and a commitment to open access research meant that we could go online to search through holdings and collections to see us through the see-sawing months of lockdown and shifting tiers.
What’s next for ETS?
While the pandemic has necessitated shifts in some of our research phases, it has also prompted deeper thinking about the methodologies underpinning early modern archival collections, digitisations, and access, refining what feels most urgent to our project. We’re planning three series of blogs over the coming months to share our unfolding reflections on methodology and praxis – as well as some of the delightful, fascinating riches of our archival findings. One series focuses on the problem of archival violence and inclusivity: Oliver and Erin will be thinking through some of the limitations of major manuscript and print documents and resources that have shaped early modern performance studies and our project, questions around digital curation and access, and – in conversation with experts working in and around curatorial and archival industries – how we reshape collections for more inclusive futures. Clare, Lucy, and Erin will be running a series where we speak with researchers at Roehampton and King’s, and colleagues working on collaborative early modern archival and PaR projects around the UK, about the challenges of – and strategies for – researching in a pandemic. Mel will be leading a series sharing moments from our work with REED (and, when archives re-open in future, original documents) that are phenomenologically rich, bringing to life the fascinating, funny, strange, and delightfully wide performance experience available in early modern England.
We hope you’ll continue to follow us in the coming months.