Screen Heritage and the Big Society…the challenge for the public film archives


Screen Heritage and the Big Society…the challenge for the public film archives

by James Patterson, MACE Director

The Media Archive for Central England Film Store

(This is an edited version of a paper delivered to “Film Heritage, Digital Future”, a conference held at Birmingham City University 4/3/11.) 

The last time I wrote about how I saw the challenges for the film archive sector was nearly 2 years ago. It was not the first time I had written about the subject.

 I’m writing about it again and I suspect that it won’t be the last time.

 And why would it be the last time? The film archiving itself is always challenging, the approaches we take as archivists are always developing and the context in which we operate – the political context with a small p, and in consequence the funding context, is always in flux. So the challenges we face are always changing. What is unchanging is our responsibility to develop a service which meets the needs of the community and realizes all the potential in the collections we develop and care for.

 I must preface my remarks by saying that my views on the matter are my own – borne out of nearly 32 years working in the film archives in the public sector and the last 20 of those at a senior level in both a national and regional context. I am not suggesting that I am representing anyone else’s views.

 I am limiting my remarks to the film archives in the public sector and the challenges faced there because this is the sector I know. It is not in any way to ignore the important work done for the survival of our moving image culture by other organizations. In fact, I think it is really important that we begin to develop appropriate and closer working relationships across the whole sector as soon as we can.

 I’ve called this piece Screen Heritage and the Big Society not because I want to discourse on how we can develop community action in support of our sector – though I may touch on this – but more as a shorthand for the wider current context of our services.

 And what is that context? What is the current challenge?

 The public film archive services are currently delivered by 2 UK wide archives (BFI National Archive and IWM); there are services for Scotland and Wales delivered from departments of their respective National Libraries; and there are 9 small archive services operating in the English regions.

 All of these archives are independent of each other – the relationships between them and the way the funding works are complex and have been made more complicated in the past few years – partly by devolution of responsibility to the nations, partly by a lack of a clear strategic and shared overall vision for the services in England.

 “The current political context is one of decreasing public funds and of being told to do more with less.”

 The drive from the current government to reduce the perceived unnecessary bureaucracies has impacted as much in the film world as elsewhere.

 The UK Film Council (UKFC) is being closed with all public support for film activity transferring the BFI. The regional screen agencies (independent, though closely tied to UKFC) are working out how they will become (or engage with) a new body to support screen related creative and cultural industry activity outside the capital. That body is called Creative England. The proposal is that it should have three hubs North, Central and South.

 Creative England is now working with the BFI on defining their relationship so that strategic priorities and delivery paths for the range of areas in which they have some responsibility can be achieved.

 These discussions are ongoing and will be resolved during the coming year (2011).

 Creative England is currently consulting on an interim strategy document which covers the financial year 2011/12. Driven by even further reducing funds, it is clear from the consultation documents that there are expectations of a structural change of the regional film archives in England.

 The nature of the change is currently defined only in the sentence ‘there is an immediate need to develop a more cost effective/aggregated out of London network of RFAs…’.

 There is an old story about a man who, travelling in Ireland, stopped and asked a farmer for directions to Dublin. “If I was going to Dublin”, the farmer replied “I would not be starting from here”. The circumstances we find ourselves in seem to me to resonate with that. The starting point for our journey is one that we might not have chosen.

 But matters are further complicated by not having great clarity at this stage about the destination. Indeed, some of the sector like the place we are in and want to stay. But we have been and are being told that we must travel and some of the sector feel the need to travel and that a journey would be beneficial in many ways, but the problem we face is that the necessity to travel is not, at the moment, being combined with a clear destination. At best we have a sense that – to stretch the metaphor towards breaking point – we know that we should probably head towards Dublin because Dublin is where we probably ought to be. We hope to be engaged in a conversation in which we agree that Dublin is our destination. But our worst fears are that that conversation may take place without us and we might end up being sent to Cork.! (a place I am very fond of by the way but which must for the purposes of the metaphor represent an inappropriate destination).

 The public film archive sector in the English regions is currently perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being fragmentary and as needlessly and inefficiently duplicating resources, activities and facilities. Because it is seen this way there is a sense that the aggregation of the sector will reduce costs.

 This is our starting point. And in the current climate where strategic bodies which have served the English regions are being reduced typically from nine to three, where regionalism is out and where the public purse is too stretched to cover the kind of more peripheral public service activity that we represent, we are not, in my view, in a good place to make the case for the retention of the status quo.

 “So change is the order of the day.”

 Is there anything else we can glean from the Creative England document?

 I am greatly comforted by a recognition that, at least in this transition year, CE have made the whole area of broader film culture (which includes the heritage sector) one of their three priorities. I am equally comforted by the their desire not to undo or damage the benefit we have managed to accrue from the very welcome investment of capital into the sector which led to the Screen Heritage UK programme which is currently in train.

 I know that not all my colleagues concur, but I for one think that there is a strong case for the aggregation of elements of our work. I have been advocating this approach for some time…not because I think it will save money, but because I think it may be possible to improve the services we offer by taking a different approach.

 And in all of our consideration of these challenges the service…what we do and how well we achieve it must lie at the heart.

 So what is our role?

 I have moved away from defining the archive in terms of “collection”. I see the role of the regional film archive as being about engaging people with screen heritage to achieve positive benefit.

 Now clearly a key part of that is the core work of uncovering the region’s screen heritage, ensuring that it is secure now and for future generations and available now and for future generations. And there are particular and specialist archive facilities, functions and expertises that need to be made available to do that work.

 Some of these things have to be located in the region in order for the organization to work effectively in delivering a regional service, some of them – the more backroom functions – can be shared and provided more remotely.

Steenbeck and view of Store

Our responsibility is to make sure that things are done to the right and proper standard to achieve the outcome…not necessarily to do all of them ourselves.

 “But each part of the country has its own identity and has its own priorities and imperatives. Each part of the country presents different opportunities for engagement – and if we are to work effectively at a local level in engaging people with the very remarkable resources we are developing, then we have to be alive to the variety of the opportunities and potential partnerships – and that means working on the ground locally and having the right capacity to facilitate that.”

One of the collections of film found in the Midlands during the HLF funded Full Circle Project

 And working out how best to develop individual and shared responsibilities for the film archive sector must be an inclusive conversation. A conversation in which all the partners, national and regional, come to the table and, recognizing the value and the complementary nature of their different services, their different approaches and the different kinds of contexts in which they work, sort out a genuinely strategic network of service.

 The film archives do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of the wider cultural offer – they are part of the broad cultural landscape and have the potential to impact across a very wide range of cultural partnerships. We need to build on existing relationships nationally and regionally and locally and take care not to damage it in the changes which lie ahead.

 And if all of the changes that lie ahead of us are driven by the need to reduce the amount which we see from the public purse, then developing a new business model and one which is sustainable is probably our biggest challenge.

 To create a new model to deliver a sensible and engaged service to over 40 million people outside London with a Treasury settlement of less than the £290,000 which is, this year, shared between the 9 English regional Film Archives is very challenging indeed.

 It would be quite wrong of me to suggest that £290,000 is all the support we have because for all of us this is only part of a much larger basket of Lottery and other project funding and institutional and in kind support which we have very successfully each developed over the years around this central plank. But it is the central plank and is of considerable importance.

 That the sector has managed to deliver as much as it has with such a small core platform gives me some encouragement for the road ahead. Clearly there are entrepreneurial people working in the sector. But we need to be open to ideas which challenge the received wisdom about how we develop income to cover our costs.

 Sacrilegious maybe, but we must examine again what our ‘public service’ remit means in the current climate.

I believe, and have done for some time, that we must make a contribution, and a more considerable one, to covering our overheads.

We are “not for profit” organizations but that does not mean that we are “not for income”.

The more we can generate, the more we can deliver. We must invest time and energy into the development of innovative ways and means of getting our resources into use and to generating income from that use.

 We must argue for the retention of a core funding platform – without that we can do nothing. We must continue to make the case for that core platform to be set at a level which is realistic – but we must expect to deliver a responsible level of financial return ourselves – just as we must continue to raise funds from Lottery and other project sources and through partnership working. We must at the same time take care to make sure that our development plans and our core activity is not unduly skewed by chasing funds with inappropriate priorities.

 And yes, we must engage community help – we must respond to the so called Big Society.

 It’s not that all of these things mean we must suddenly start to do things which are different. We must simply adapt to the times and the circumstances – as we always have.

 The sector faces some hard decisions and there are many things that will discomfort us in the months ahead.

 But actually at heart I’m optimistic. I think that, challenging as the coming period is likely to be, there is also opportunity – and I, for one, though not without some anxiety, am looking forward to it and believe that, with an appropriate attitude and a spirit of collaboration, the coming changes could just develop into something very good.

 James Patterson

Director, MACE, March 2011