Onward & Upward: Lessons Learned

It’s been an anxious wait since we submitted our recent funding application in May but as you may have seen in the local press and in our social media posts we were thrilled to have been successful in our recent Heritage Lottery Application, and have been awarded a further £95,500 in order to complete the digitisation of this amazing collection over the next two years.

This award, which will see the digitisation of over 4000 more half plates, the remaining portion of the collection to be addressed, also allows us to work a little more creatively with the collection – opening it up to new audiences and asking people to engage with and creatively re-interpret the images. The focus of our research in this phase will move to the women in the collection, looking at the impact of this seismic period in history on the everyday woman, who, sandwiched between the Victorian era and a Brave New World came to embrace the spirit of change, resourcefulness and mettle that the era handed them with aplomb.

While our blog title will remain the same ‘The Past on Glass’, you may notice our site undergoes a little facelift over the next few weeks – not least taking on a subtitle to reflect the new focus of our project.  We’ll now be operating under the moniker ‘Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Times; Rediscovering the Female Portraits of David Knights-Whittome, Photographer.’ This does not mean that we are abandoning research of other sitters, on the contrary, we are still actively encouraging public research of all the subjects in our plates, but that our particular emphasis will be placed on trying to uncover some of the harder to locate female subjects that have so far often eluded us. With the centenary of the award of the Franchise to women over the age of 30 fast approaching, this seems like an apt and topical focus for our attention, and while we will be interested to find any pioneering suffragists in our ranks, it is more the ordinary woman that we are interested in – the women whose lives were irrevocably changed by the events of WW1 and the following years and whose stoicism, resourcefulness and resolve formed the original model for modern women today.

imageOur recent exhibition ‘The Past on Glass: A Local Photographer’s Legacy’ which closed at the end of August marked the end point of nearly two years of research, discovery, re-evaluation and solid hard work by ourselves and an amazing team of volunteers. Volunteer hours alone have clocked up to a grand total of just over 2500 thousand hours and this does not take into account the many extra-curricular hours put in by the archives team to get the funding bid and exhibition completed on schedule. All this reflects what has quite simply been a labour of love for most of the team, but it does not mean that we can sit back on our laurels.

The achievement we feel at having reached this point is tempered by the fact that while we have far outstripped all our own expectations, the work is far from over. In fact, as we celebrate the award of a second round of HLF funds, we must also take stock of the immense task we have ahead to complete the work of digitising this collection alongside some new exciting challenges to try to reinterpret this material and create new learning opportunities in which it can be used.

Seen in the light of all the funding challenges faced by the heritage sector, we feel very privileged to have had our hard work justified by a second HLF award but we mustn’t become complacent. The remaining few weeks of the initial project provide us with a natural break in which to review the last two years; to recognise that we could perhaps have done some things a bit better and use what we have learned to help inform the way forward. For while we have been successful and have met all our funding commitments, this is not to say that we have not made mistakes. So what lessons have we learned?

  1.  Simplify. You can never automate your processes enough – while we considered automating almost all elements of the physical scanning process from the start, we left elements of the cataloguing process to chance. This has proved to be a mistake in terms of man-hours as we now seek to clean up our data. We catalogue to Excel in the first instance. Freetext keyword or ‘tag’ fields, backed-up with a glossary of common terms have given us a real headache in recent weeks, offering chances for not only spelling and formatting errors, but also for the misinterpretation of the term ‘keyword’. It seems obvious now but prompted by the vast task of unpicking 2 years of creative keywording, we have now put in place drop down menus which eliminate this problem effectively. And why did we not do this from the start?! Obvious right?! One word. Hindsight.
  2. Never underestimate how different people interpret instructions – be as clear and concise as you can. And review your workflow regularly. If you want the item number written on the top right of your four flap folder write it down, print it out in bold and put it where everyone can see it. And make sure that all work, even that you do yourself, is double checked by someone else.
  3. You will have errors in your data. Build in regular checking procedures. Checking little and often is far less painful than picking through thousands of records.
  4. Do not underestimate time-scales or be overambitious. Consider the big aspects of your plan from the start and make them part of the long term project. We are really happy with how the exhibition turned out, but in all honesty there were some big elements we had to shelve purely because we did not have enough time to get them organised off the back of writing a major funding application. This has taught me a big lesson about managing my project holistically rather than in chunks – one part inevitably feeds into another.
  5. Think through filing systems for non-core material. I spent more time in the preparation of blogs, the funding application and writing the exhibition searching through my phone, camera or among ancient emails for non-collection photos and quotes than seems credible. The filing of our core image files is impeccable, but I really need to get my reference material in order.
  6. While we are hugely confident in the abilities of our volunteers, we mustn’t be overambitious or expect too much. When you’re leading a project which is overwhelmingly staffed by volunteers, you must learn to stand up for your them! We are lucky to have an amazing team who have gone above and beyond in their contribution, but they didn’t have to, and I wish I could have spared them some of the extra hours and effort they have recently given us. All volunteer time is a gift, and one which should be accepted with gratitude and good grace, not expected and taken for granted. For us, extraordinary volunteer contributions have ranged from hours of IT expertise to pure physical labour, getting hands (very) dirty, filling, sanding and painting exhibition boards on the hottest day of the year. These are things that we should have anticipated and that we will learn from going forward. If the expertise and capacity does not exist within the core team, then it needs to be properly considered and budgeted for before the event. Watching my team labour in the heat getting our exhibition up was not my proudest hour. We couldn’t have anticipated the weather but you should never leave yourself without any option but to ask volunteers to help with something you are really not happy doing yourself! If you’re reading this Team PoG, thank you, thank you, thank you!

Most project officers reading this will shrug their shoulders at the lessons I’ve learned I’m sure. Most are common sense and come with experience right? As much as I hate to admit it but I’m sure I’ll make some of them again. I know from past workplaces that even super experienced teams can overlook details – and its often the more obvious ones are the ones that trip us up first.

I feel very blessed to have found this role. I have been very lucky to work with an experienced and very capable (and trusting) project manager who has offered me amazing opportunities to think creatively and independently and to take ownership of things that I ordinarily would never have been able to manage as part of a larger team. It has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and allowed me to try and succeed at some very exciting things that I would now feel very confident in replicating elsewhere. And as a result it has taught me that it’s okay to make a few mistakes. Because that’s how you learn, and grow, and get it right next time.

So here’s to round two of our project, to new challenges and to bigger and better things in the pipeline. Watch this space to see what we’re up to – and if you have any advice to pass along, don’t be shy – I’m all ears.

Abby Matthews, Project Officer

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3 thoughts on “Onward & Upward: Lessons Learned

  1. Abby, would you be interested in having the Past on the Glass project & its latest developments featured in the November edition of out&about magazine. Please get in touch if it’s of interest.

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