Volunteer voices: Lorraine Stoker on visiting the Tate Archives

I have been volunteering at the Courtauld Institute since March 2017. Throughout my thirty-eight years of teaching Art, Design and Art History in inner-London schools I have visited the Courtauld Gallery many times and have also participated in the Institute’s more recent schools outreach and broadening participation activities. However, it was the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, involving the creation of an online archive of 1.1 million images from their own image collection, with the 20th century housing projects and the Anthony Kersting Middle Eastern photographic collection, which attracted my attention. As Sir Nicolas Serota commented, the project ‘is an exciting contemporary expression of Samuel Courtauld’s belief that ‘art is for the people’, and I was eager to play a small part in the transformation of the Courtauld archives into a national and international public resource.

As a volunteer, I have access to the Courtauld, its community, exhibitions, events and collections. I can even view and sit in awe of the Gauguins every day now! In addition, working as part of a great team, the practical training and experience in cataloguing, handling, transcribing and digitising historical material and in creating a digital archive has certainly been educational and highly rewarding.

Visiting the Tate Archives as part of our training and development was a fantastic experience. After walking through the bowels of the art gallery, with its air conditioning and heating ducts – even an old delivery bicycle – past the spectacular spiral staircase inspired by the original floor tiles, we entered the ‘Site Timeline’ – a drum-shaped room at the heart of the building. This room, a small part of the highly successful £45m revamp, is dedicated to the History of the site and is set within the foundation of the oldest part of the building’s structure, Millbank Prison.  I was well-aware of the history of The Tate as a prison, but it was quite remarkable to hear that in the 1960s there was a serious proposal to add a brutalist, modern extension to the building!

The new staircase, Tate Britain. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Stoker.

One interesting part of the renovation I have since identified is that when designing the rotunda mirrored bar in the Members Room, the architects Caruso St John were inspired by the Courtauld’s own A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet.

Though a regular visitor, I had never got further than the Djanogly Cafè, so The Digital Archive corridor – with its gallery of touchscreens – certainly surprised and impressed me. You can reference a work of art in the Tate collection, access the image of the painting or sculpture and compare it next to the digitised image of the archival item. It was amazing to digitally turn the pages of a Donald Rodney sketchbook, and I have just discovered I can do this on my laptop.

The Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms were next. There, we heard about the 1928 flood and the new flood doors which are, of course, still untested!

At the start of the digitisation of its collection, the Tate’s mission statement was ‘to fulfil our responsibility to promote public enjoyment, knowledge, and understanding of British and international art, we decided that our selection of archive material should follow these principles and reflect that this collection belonged to the nation’. The sheer scale of the Tate’s Archive digitisation, now in its third year, is overwhelming, with over 52,000 pieces already captured, all of which are available to view on the website. This stands in addition to the 65,000 paintings, sculpture and works on paper, also available to browse online. The aim is to take the largest archive of British art in the world and make it accessible to national and international online audiences, so with new collections coming in each year, this is an ongoing task.

The Courtauld’s Photographic Library digitisation project is in its first six-month developmental phase and this Tate Britain visit certainly put into context the extensive possibilities within an innovative digitisation programme and public online interaction, such as crowdsourcing, transcription algorithms, and the development of new routes into the collection in addition to the traditional paths of art or title based retrieval.  Without doubt, this insight into the successful digitisation project at the Tate Britain has galvanised the Courtauld Connects volunteers, as we look forward to the completion of the developmental phase and the exciting possibilities over the next four years.

Tate Britain and Vickers Tower, 12th September 1964, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_G4137)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W1000)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W0999)

Volunteer voices: Mary Caple on digitising at the Courtauld

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

My name is Mary Caple. I’m one of the volunteers on the HLF Digitisation Project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since we started digitising images in March, I’ve spent nearly thirty hours working on the project with Faye, Tom, Sarah, and and other community members donating their time.

I jumped at the chance to get on board with this initiative. During my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada, I took museum studies courses, designed exhibitions, and questioned various approaches to digitisation with my peers. What kinds of possibilities arise when exponentially more data is freely available online? Can digitisation make archives more accessible to a broad array of people within and outside academia? Since university I’ve researched in archives and worked on curatorial projects, but this role brings two firsts. Collections photography and the digitisation process are new to me.

One of the many reasons this project at the Courtauld is special is its approach to volunteer participation. While we are welcome to request a particular task on any given day, by default we rotate through jobs from cataloguing to photography. This way, each person involved digitising the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections can try something new as well as play to their strengths. Switching around has another benefit. By spending time with distinct parts of the collections and approaching them on Tuesdays as a photographer, Thursdays as an archivist, and Fridays as a geographical sleuth/transcriber, a potentially overwhelming behemoth undertaking instead feels like a treasure trove. The ability to approach our material from these different angles keeps perspective fresh and gives a sense of what lies ahead in the months and years to come as the project progresses.

Here, I’ll take you through each of the three types of tasks each volunteer performs when they come in to the Institute. By starting with the small parts – the daily tasks of the 50+ volunteers involved –  I hope you’ll gain an understanding of what goes into getting a large-scale digitisation initiative like this one off the ground.

Labeling/Sorting

Boxes waiting to be labeled

Boxes waiting to be labeled

The first task on the roster for most volunteers involves sorting and labeling the collections. Over the last month and change we started labeling the Conway collection. Most of these items are printed photographs mounted on card stock, sorted in files, which are housed in boxes found on shelves of the library. As such, they’re also a bit sturdier (less easy to break, tear or maim) than the film and glass negatives of the Kersting and Laib images and a good point of departure for learning how to handle archival objects.

Everything gets a number in our very own Library of Babel. Lots of time is dedicated to going through and numbering each box with sticky labels, and numbering the files and cardstock pages (as well as the occasional news clipping) in each file in pencil by hand. These numbers come in handy later on when we’re taking photos – a number becomes the unique identifier for each image, and what you’ll see eventually when you navigate to the image’s page on the online site. We’re creating a new archival framework that will organize the way the images live in their online home.

While labeling is a great way to get to know the geographical and temporal depth of the Conway images, there are also small surprises. I learned one of my favourite archival lessons from Faye while sorting images. Every file containing architectural images is sorted from distance views to interior details, outside to inside. Keep an eye out if you find yourself flipping through them. 

Transcribing the Kersting Logs

Another task dealing with the words and numbers of images involves “digitising” Anthony Kersting’s photograph ledgers by data entry. Kersting meticulously wrote down the date, place, and distinguishing information about thousands of photos he took all around the world throughout the 20th century. Transcription volunteers go through his logbooks and enter this information into a Google Form Faye has set up. This simplifies the data input procedure, hiding the entire spreadsheet of information each time we sit down to work.

Kersting may have been a globetrotter, but he was also a passionate explorer of his own backyard. A recent newcomer to the UK, I’ve found tracing his travels from Cumbria to Herefordshire and beyond a terrific learning experience. Often some Googling is in order to clear up undecipherable spelling or to clearly pinpoint where his travels had taken him for a given photo.

Tracing his photographic path through 1960s Middle East has been a particularly moving experience. I trawl through Wikipedia sites and old travel guides to find location information for castles and towns Kersting rolled through. Borders have changed. Many of the sites Kersting thought interesting enough to photograph have now been destroyed or badly damaged by the conflict in Syria. 

Taking the Photos

Taking the photos

While boxes are labeled and data is inputted, we’re moving along with photographing the collection. This is a chance for the social volunteers among us to get collaborative – the photo team always consists of two volunteers. One person positions the images under the camera. The other uses the studio computer to edit each for uniformity and add some simple metadata to the files. While we’re welcome to have a look at the images whenever we’re in, this job provides a great chance to have a look at each and every image going up.

You might be wondering why we’re using a camera instead of a scanner to digitise. While a scanner might complete the job more quickly, and many digitisation projects do use scanners to capture images, the use of a camera here serves a particular purpose. As many of the images we’re working with are mounted, an image taken with a camera can capture that extra layer of depth – the sliver of space between board and photograph is given life. We hope to give the computer user a taste of the experience of getting to see these collections in person – the entire boards are treated as archival objects rather than just the photographs mounted to them. Tom Bilson, the Courtauld’s Head of Digital Media, describes this beautifully – ask him if you ever see him in person. 

Spending time on each of these tasks gives volunteers a sense of the larger momentum of the project while they work on smaller tasks. Returning to the same task you worked on a few days, weeks or a month or two previous comes with the surprise of seeing how much the other volunteers and staff have completed in the interim. Something as small as a giant leap in the number of boxes labeled, having moved on to a geographical locale further down the alphabet or thematically different, or seeing a new subject arise (architecture has taken awhile!) is exciting.

Now that the overview is out of the way, I’m looking forward to diving into some specific stories about the collection to share with you in months to come.

Getting to know our volunteers

Interviewing volunteers is one of my favourite parts of being a Volunteer Coordinator, I never get bored of hearing people’s stories and what led them to become a volunteer. This past month and a half I have interviewed over 40 new volunteers for our digitisation project so it’s been a brilliant 6 weeks for me.  Now that I’ve listened to everyone’s motivations, goals and stories I thought I would blog about what I’ve learnt in a Q&A style…

After interviewing over 40 people, would you say there is a typical digitisation volunteer?
In short, no. We are really, very lucky to have attracted such a diversity of experience, skills, knowledge-bases and strengths in such a short space of time. We have a very multicultural volunteer team so far, which I think is a great strength as we are digitising photographs from all over the world. We also have a wide age range amongst our volunteers, spanning from 18 to 70+. We have people with professional and unpaid experience from a wide variety of sectors like finance, education and architecture, as well as many who have formerly trained in art history, conservation and archiving, and also many enthusiasts – so this is a chance not only for volunteers to learn from us, but for us to learn from them and for there to be lots of shared learning from each other. A real network is already emerging!

Getting to know the Conway Library © The Courtauld Institute of Art

Is there a main motivation for getting involved in the Digitisation project so far?
As you would expect, everyone has a slightly different take on why they want to volunteer, but in general there are four main motivations for becoming a digitisation volunteer that crop up in most of the interviews so far, with many people mentioning at least two at some point in their interview:

  1. A passion for creating an open data platform as a way of opening up stories, diversifying audiences, breaking down barriers and improving access to art for communities who might not be able to access the originals.
  2. The pull of being involved with the Courtauld Institute of Art, as a world-class cultural institution.
  3. The chance to gain hands-on experience on a digitisation process, with a view to move into employment or further training in this field.
  4. The desire to spend free time discovering images that are interesting, beautiful and have not been made public before.


Has anything about the interviews so far surprised you?
After managing volunteers for quite a few years, I have learnt not to make assumptions; but I am always very moved by people’s passion, drive and commitment to use their free time to help organisations further their cause, and I am overwhelmed by the variety of skills and perspectives they bring with them. It’s very motivating to be around them!
Sarah Way

Volunteer Coordinator
Courtauld Connects