Unlocking the Fine Arts Archive

British School at Rome

Challenge

Founded in 1901, the British School at Rome (BSR) is the largest of the UK’s British International Research Institutes (BIRI), with interdisciplinary expertise covering the Humanities, Social Sciences, Visual Arts, and Architecture. Since 1913, the BSR has awarded scholarships enabling British artists to work in Rome and travel in Italy.

The scholars and artists who have been visiting the BSR between 1913 and 1930 have left behind a wealth of archival material that relates to their activity and the production of notable artworks. This archive is accessible predominantly to visitors and scholars-in-residence who have physical access, and this has limited engagement, especially during the recent Coronavirus pandemic. 

While the BSR have intensified a process of digitisation, engagement with the current digital collections website has been limited, in part due to the necessity of external technical expertise. The BSR wanted a complementary online platform to make  their resources not just readily available to the public, but framed in a way that attracts non-specialist audiences through creative digital engagement. It was important that BSR staff could both contribute and engage, where training in highly technical web platforms such as Islandora would have been impossible and impractical.

Research team 
  • Dr Peter Buckles, School of Histories, Languages and Cultures, University of Liverpool. 
  • Ms Ksenia Litvinenko, Department of Architecture, School of Environment, Education and Development, the University of Manchester.
  • Dr Nia Davies, School of Arts, Media and Creative Technologies, University of Salford.
Solution

The team designed and built a website to showcase BSR’s fine arts collection and share new insights on their historical and artistic context through a semi-curated museum-like experience. 

Designed around the concept of the network, the platform features a series of web pages that explore the relationships between particular individuals, objects, places, and themes related to the history of the BSR between 1913 and 1930. The Research Team wrote and edited completely new original content, working closely with the BSR team to select the most appropriate archival images and objects to feature. The platform is entirely user-friendly and tailored to the in-house skills of the BSR team, who will then be able to grow and develop the new platform for years to come. 

A final report complemented the online platform, with recommendations on how the website can be further expanded, how it can be integrated with other institutional social media and how engagement with the platform can be measured for future impact.

Impact

The British School at Rome is now in possession of a digital platform that brings its Fine Art collection to life. Offering new access and insights into the previously private archive enables the BSR to connect and build their engagement with expert and non-expert audiences. With the team’s recommendations for further expansion and engagement, the BSR will be able to build on the platform, inviting collaborations from students, scholars, and other experts.

The project provides the public with a semi-curated, museum-like experience that they can have from the comfort of their own homes. The website brings to life the objects which are in the Fine Arts archive, placing them in their historical and artistic context. The BSR will benefit from increased engagement with its digital archival holdings due to people travelling through the website.

Creating the website has been a rewarding creative and intellectual challenge for the researchers, who look forward to continued work with the BSR to build reflections and insights on the project.

In the media

Roads to Rome: Collaborative archival research from afar
Cultural Practice, 17 September 2021.

 

 

Quotes

The project has brought together four elements of the ‘business’: the Archivist, Assistant Director, Fine Arts Curator and the Impact and Engagement Officer alongside the collections themselves, archival records, photographs and special collections. This unity will enable these staff to increase the visibility of their research and engagement with our audiences in the UK and Italy (and possibly worldwide). It will act as a catalyst for further work and creative thinking, all of which will be driven by the wealth of our collections. We all believe that our effectiveness at work will be enhanced. The team reminded us that the BSR’s collections are exciting, relevant and worth celebrating. This has renewed our determination to further research and make available this outstanding resource.

Alessandra Giovenco
BSR Archivist

This programme afforded me new insight into art historical research and archival practice whilst at the same time allowing me to extend my writing and editorial-curatorial knowledge in an exciting new context. It was a productive challenge to work with complex and surprising material and a pleasure to work across disciplines with skilled and knowledgeable partners at the BSR and my collaborating researchers. I’m happy that we were able to explore and conceive of new ways to encounter, research and present to the public this fine arts archive.

Nia Davis
The University Of Salford

Engaging with the BSR has been a novel and enriching experience. They have been a wonderful and supportive partner, who have encouraged us at every turn. In our discussions, they have been open to our ideas, and this has produced an effective dialogue that has helped the project progress. The unique experience of following and participating in publicising an important and rich fine arts archive was valuable for us as practising researchers. The challenges and possibilities of communicating the value of archival materials to the broader public is a unique experience at the intersection of research and public engagement that can be rarely combined in such an exciting way.

Peter Buckles
University Of Liverpool

This project was founded by the Economic and Social Research Council, in collaboration with the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester, as part of the Collaboration Labs programme.