Possibilities of Archives, by Ann Chow

Pink Flamingos and the chance of seeing those gorillas at Bristol Zoo. The conferences I like aren’t only those held in unusual places but the sort that open up possibilities, writes Ann Chow.

The Creative Histories conference gave me much to think about. This was a meeting of the intersections between creativity, history and the arts (including visual culture, literature and a smattering of the digital humanities). What brought all these things together? As I listened to all the thought-provoking papers, it occurred to me that archival documents created throughout history, whether institutional, national, local or personal, can create or contribute to these possibilities and opportunities. Let me illustrate my point:

Concern over state of Siegfried Sassoon’s mental health, 1918 (Document reference: WO 339/51440)

Above is a document from The National Archives’ collection, outlining the poet Siegfried Sassoon’s nervous breakdown. Taken from his officer’s service record from the First World War, it gives us an insight into his personal life, particularly the harrowing effect of war on his mental health. The document raises questions for a variety of different disciplines. Could these questions be addressed in interesting ways through interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research?

Different disciplines might see the same documents in contrasting ways and construct diverse themes around them: for example, the language officially used to describe mental health, ‘mental health and the First World War’ or ‘mental health and masculinity’. Perhaps you have thought of some others as you examined the document.

Our responses to these issues will depend on our particular discipline or disciplines.

Perhaps from a literary angle, a story is born, based on the lives of writers who, as soldiers or officers, fought in the First World War. Pat Baker’s Booker-Nominated novel, Regeneration, for example, looked at the treatment of mental health in the First World War and featured Siegfried Sassoon as a real-life character from whom she drew inspiration and who feeds into the narrative. Or perhaps an online learning tool which shows the myriad effects of war on soldiers’ lives and draws closely from archival sources. The ‘In Our Minds’ project is another permutation which showcases the possibilities of archives.

Horrors of War The Dance of Death by Mervyn Peake – one of the documents used in the In Our Minds project run by The National Archives and UCA Archives (document reference: INF 3/660)

The ‘In Our Mind’ project sought to encourage creative practitioners from the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) to respond to a selection of documents from The National Archives and UCA Archive related to mental health, and then to create works of art from their findings and thoughts. We consciously devised the project not only to showcase the final outputs (the works themselves through a travelling art exhibition at the various UCA campuses and The National Archives) but also to record the process informally and formally. By incorporating this as an integral part of the project outcomes, we acknowledged that using archives was an important part of the creative process and that using archives could itself be a creative activity. We documented this creative interaction with archives, from initial questions and impressions to the final artworks, both formally (a magazine article) and informally (blogs and videoblogs). One of our aims was for other practitioners to be inspired to use archives within their creative practice.

For more information about the these processes, please read our blog posts on

As part of the project we also developed a using archives in a creative practice workshop pilot as a framework to encourage other creative practitioners and students unfamiliar with the The National Archives’ collection to engage critically with them.

Through my attendance at the Creative Histories conference and my role managing the In Our Minds project, it occurred to me that creativity perhaps was:

  • a way of thinking
  • an approach
  • a form of problem solving
  • finding a pathway from A to B or even, creating new pathways C to D to B
  • possibilities
  • combinations of the above

Creativity could be seen as a form of possibility puzzle (and I don’t mean it in the philosophical sense).         Perhaps it could be seen as a number of solutions to a problem or an issue with myriad answers, none of them wrong. If any of you have read David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, then you’ll understand what I mean. Some people see themselves as naturally creative, others do not. Creativity is not a privilege or talent but rather a potential for anyone open to it. Ultimately it can improve an existing idea, thought, piece of work and turn it on its head. Maybe this is why creativity is often linked to originality.

Archives, physical or as a theoretical concept, can be seen in the same way. Their usage involves interpretation from within the eye of the beholder who views them in ways that are useful and relevant to them. This interaction can also be delightful, thought-provoking and surprising. Here are some examples, taken from the conference, which show the different ways archives have been used or interpreted:

  • Threads, a book by Julia Blackburn – Wanting to learn more about the forgotten artist John Craske, Blackburn uses archives, personal accounts and his artworks. She implicates herself as a device to weave the story of the artist. In effect, she writes herself into the narrative biography and uses the process of researching archives as part of the narrative framework
  • An art installation London Rocks –Narrative Flows by Lito Apostolakou – Archives as a concept have been explored by numerous artists. The concept of archives as a form of presentation and a way of interacting with nature is showcased in this art installation, which involves listening to sound boxes of different parts of the Thames
  • Mapping LGBT+ Bristol developed by local LGBT+ OutStories Bristol history group, Bristol City Council, Freedom Youth and University of Bristol –surviving archives can provide unique snippets of information about hidden LGBT histories that can us think about place in different and inclusive ways

These examples make me think less about who gets to be creative than how creativity (including the use of archives) is a potential waiting to be incorporated into everybody’s lives.




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