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: Carol Budd on visiting the British Library’s imaging studios

My name is Carol Budd, I am one of 60 volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since I joined the project I have enjoyed learning about the whole process of archiving, particularly as I was somewhat of an ingénue to this field. I was interested in photography, knew something about IT and cameras and was keen to develop skills with photographic software. Having recently retired from a career in IT, technology was nothing new, but the idea that the fusty, dusty world of archiving might engage me and make me think of a second career never occurred to me when I decided to apply.

To provide more context to what we do, the team organise some visits to other institutions’ digitisation studios, so when we were offered a visit to the British Library, I jumped at the chance.

We were given a tour of the imaging studios, and were shown the different cameras, scanners, stands and technology available to meet any number of different requirements. Alongside in-house digitisations, the BL have a commercial arm to accommodate people and companies’ needs to digitise on demand parts of the collection.

Fiona Clancy, Studio Manager, giving a tour of the Qatar Imaging Studio.

The scale of the British Library collections is huge, if you stop and think about the size of it even a goal of 1-2% requires massive digital resources. Every item ordered needs to be registered and its whereabouts must be known at any time. The value and age of some of the books in the British Library mean that before they can be sent for digitisation, the conservation team need to ensure that the item is fit to be handled. Some items are just too fragile for the rigours of digitisation.

Following the tour, we were given presentations by members of the Digital Research team on what to do with all the digital images and metadata once they are created, and how to let the public know that they are available. The most engaging story was that following an aborted commercial project the Library was able to release over a million pictures into the public domain. The response to this has been varied and imaginative. Artists have used the images to create new art works, designers have used them to create a backdrop for the London Fashion Week, and an enterprising individual used them in jewellery, available to buy at Badgical Kingdom. Other exciting ideas to do with images are Poetic Places, an app for encountering culture in London, and Off the Map, a project challenging students to use images from the British Library to create new animation works and games. This has now become an annual competition and the winning teams include Pudding Lane Productions from De Montfort University, Leicester, who created an interpretation of 17th Century London and Gothulus Rift, University of South Wales, who created a Fonthill Abbey inspired game. Images from Shakespeare Folios were used to create Team Quattro’s The Tempest, and Tom Battey’s Shakespearience. The British Library is keen to see more ideas to do with data take shape, so it’s making copies of some of its datasets available for research and creative purposes.

Stella Wisdom and Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curators, explaining the benefits of digitisation.

But digitisation can also mean preserving images for posterity – after the official Canadian Archive suffered a fire, the digitised Canadian photographic collection is now even more precious and unique. The list of different digitised material goes on, the British Library is digitising its vast Sound Archive with funding from the HLF, and even the whole UK web is being archived. Why, I wondered, would you want to archive old web pages? A few days later I read of a court case where archived web pages were used to gain a successful prosecution.

I left the visit excited to be inspired to take new ideas out into my own world, and with a fuller understanding of the aims and importance of digitisation, and of our contribution to this project as volunteers. If only there were more hours in the day!

Volunteers exploring the British Library.

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