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Using Archives In Your Research: Case Studies

Case Studies: using archives and museum collections in student work

James Tasker, BA Hons English and History

My name is James Tasker and I have recently finished my degree at De Montfort University. I was a joint honours student in English and History but chose to do my dissertation as a History module. For my project I looked at the archives of the Leicester Mercury, which were held by the special collections in the library of the University of Leicester. I wanted to examine migration trends from Southern/Mediterranean member states of the European Union to the United Kingdom. For my research I wanted both a national but also localised perspective of the demographic changes. Therefore any article that referred to the cultural engagement of these diaspora with the wider community were of particular interest to me.

I gave their team specific keywords/ subject matter that I hoped could be of use to my investigation. We held regular email correspondence over the progress of their research. Where there was a lack of data they would ask me if there were any other areas of related interest. I in turn conducted online research and based on my findings offered them alternatives of possible interest to me. We then arranged a date for when I could visit their facilities and view the sources they found, for as long as I needed. I then transcribed everything I thought might be worthy of inclusion in my dissertation. 

I was collating together as much information as possible, with the intention of filtering all of it until only the highest quality sources I could find would be included in my finished work.

By conducting archival research I was giving myself a platform to build an investigation that encouraged me to think more independently, as opposed to relying too heavily on the conclusions already reached within secondary sources from the library. I wanted a greater sense of balance for my dissertation. I did not find it intimidating because the special collections team at the University of Leicester were very supportive and appreciated my interest in the sources. I in turn appreciated all the time and effort they had spent on my behalf. When it came to viewing the sources they had found for me I examined them with the upmost care and attention, showing the respect that the sources, the staff and the academic integrity that my dissertation deserved.

Simon Drakeford, MA Sports History and Culture

My interest in Shanghai rugby history started when I was playing rugby and living in Shanghai. I produced my book and then embarked on the MA for Sports History and Culture. 

The first archives I used were in Shanghai in an area called Xujiahui. This contained a lot of material from the old Jesuit religious complex nearby and book from the library of the North China branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. It also included lots of old newspapers from the treaty port days in Shanghai. A lot of different English with Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian and French being represented. 

From this initial archive, I extended my search to use the main Public Library in Hong Kong which had digitalised copies of HK newspapers. I then visited the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham which houses a very large collection of rugby assets and books. This included a collection of Shanghai material. I then used the HSBC archives in London to retrieve transcripts from the oral histories that they did in the late 70s and early 80s. I also obtained a few photographs from there as well. 

I used extensively the website which has some Shanghai newspapers online. I also used a lot to obtain biographical info and make contact with people whose family had been in Shanghai. Latterly, I used the National Archives at Kew to obtain information I was curious about related to my book, which by this time had been published. 

To supplement the material above, I visited the Marines Archives in Quantico, near Washington. I specifically looked at the weekly magazine published by the Marines in Shanghai from 1927 - 1941, but also retrieved some personnel files of rugby players, copies of other magazines and China related books from their library. 

As my dissertation will be based on some Shanghai rugby all the above archives have therefore been utilised for my MA. 

Because my MA is correspondence course I acquired a lot of my reading material from second hand online booksellers rather than visiting a library. 

Student curated exhibition on Fluxus

The DMU Fine Art Society were able to organise a forum about the Fluxus artwork held in the DMU Art Collection. They wrote an introductory pamphlet, selected art works for display and encouraged students to respond to them. The experience gave them valuable curatorial experience. Student Melissa Fletcher said: “DMU's art collection provided an excellent resource of Fluxus artwork to be used as inspiration and a first-hand resource in our student led Fluxus symposium. Having such a large collection with multiple artists provided a great database of what the movement entailed.”

David Freestone, MA Sports History and Culture 

I first came to De Montfort University to study for my History degree. The course often had a focus on how the academic study of the subject of History related to the wider dissemination of historical knowledge. Modules such as Presenting and Re-presenting the Past as well as History in Everyday Life really inspired me to take in interest in the Archive and Heritage sectors as these seemed to me an important point of contact for most people with history. I first used an archive during my degree to research Prisoners of War in Leicestershire during the Second World War for a primary research project. Whilst undertaking research for this at Leicestershire & Rutland record office, I read letters from German POWs who had returned to Germany after the war and writing to the farmers they had worked for during the war. To read such an interesting and personal document offers a completely different level of engagement with a subject than can be gained by focusing research purely on books.

For my undergraduate dissertation I focused on Women in British Motor Sport in Inter-War Britain. Whilst researching this I used the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) archive at Silverstone circuit. I began to volunteer in the archive and found it incredibly useful to my studies. As a volunteer in the archive, the various projects I worked on led me to become very familiar with the collection which was really useful for my dissertation research. I also found that I really enjoyed the work at the archive in itself.

After graduating from my degree I continued at DMU by starting the Sports History and Culture MA course. During the course I started working part time at the BRDC archive in conjunction with the Heritage Lottery Fund bid to build a new Heritage Centre at the circuit. During this year I have also started volunteering at the DMU archive. I had not come across the archive until I was on my MA course and was interested to see the collection as well as gain experience of working in a different archive. Now that I am coming to the end of my MA I am very glad that I have combined volunteering at DMU and working at Silverstone with my course as it has allowed me to gain valuable work experience as well supporting my studies. Working in two different archives has also given me a positive outlook for a career in Heritage going forward.

Gemma Whitaker, Design Crafts student

Gemma Whitaker designed a set of decorative tiles to surround the double doors leading into the main area of the Heritage Centre as part of her end of year project during her second year. She chose to follow a brief set by DMU’s Interior Design academics, which was to create a tiled surround for the Heritage Centre entrance, with the winner having the tiles made and fitted.

Gemma went to the DMU archives to study maps of the area and incorporated them into her design, as well as images of Castle View, which leads to Leicester Castle’s Great Hall, the DMU logo and the arches of the Church of the Annunciation, which form the centrepiece of the Heritage Centre exhibition space. Gemma designed transfers, placed them on the tiles and then fired them in the DMU kilns at temperatures of 830C.
















Gemma visited the centre to see her tiles being fitted after drawing on all the skills she learned on her course and said: “I am so happy to see them going up. I had been a bit nervous about them all fitting but they look great! It has been a real learning experience and a great opportunity for everyone who entered the competition to do this formal design work. It was also great working with Nicky (Harding, Interior Design lecturer at DMU). It is going to be good putting this on my CV".

Case studies: volunteering or working in archives and museums

DMU Archives Frontrunners

DMU Archives has hosted two Frontrunners working on a project to list and package a set of negatives taken by the DMU Photographic Unit. The negatives show a wide variety of events, exhibitions, ceremonies and buildings from the late 1980s through to the early 2000s, when the team began to switch to digital photography.

One of the Frontrunners, Francesca, a student on the MA in Photographic History and Practice, said: ‘’I found working as a Frontrunner in the archive very interesting and it helped me to build on skills I had learnt on my course. I gained an insight into the job of a cataloguer and the large scale projects they often undertake. By being in the archive every week I also learnt about the day to day running of an archive. I am currently looking to apply for archive related jobs especially ones working with Photographic material. As a result of the Frontrunner placement I have started a 5 month internship at University of Cambridge working on the Royal Commonwealth Society collection.’’

DMU Archives Volunteers

Three students from the Photographic History Research Centre volunteer in the Archive once a week. Their work involves sorting, listing and repackaging a large collection of slides.

Christian Pandit, BA History

Christian is a History student who joined the town hall as an Arts and Museum Volunteer within the Photographic Archive as part of a new History module, History in the Workplace. Christian said: “My role here as one of a number of volunteers is to go through the photography archive, scan them, and put them into a massive database where anybody who needs access to them can use them.” Christian and the other volunteers have a huge task on their hands with over 500,000 photographs to sort through, some of which date back to the 1930s. He added: “There’s loads of really interesting photographs here, there’s a lot from De Montfort Hall and all the shows that have been there going back over 50 years, and there’s also lots of the city of Leicester in general and it’s amazing to see how much it has changed just over the last 15 years. This will be really good experience to add to my CV, I’m getting experience of working in an office and it’s just generally broadening my knowledge of an area that I’m really interested in.” For the full story please see the article on the DMU news section of the website. 

Hazel Symons, BA Fashion Design

The Collections Resource Centre is a very welcoming and exciting place to broaden your horizons in many areas of education. My name is Hazel Symons; I am studying BA Fashion Design at De Montfort University and am about to venture into my third and final year of study. Having the opportunity to volunteer and study at the CRC has greatly advanced my knowledge in archiving, construction and design, to name but a few domains. This was a summer adventure which I boldly took in my stride to achieve new skills which I can use within my course at DMU, future opportunities and it has advanced my CV. During my Volunteering, I was granted behind the scenes access to learn about museum archiving, including how to box, restore and maintaining garments and accessories, as well as learning how to document, photograph and label them to exceptional standards. The staff and other volunteers at the CRC are kind, bubbly, and outstandingly talented in their fields of work. The CRC is a world of treasure awaiting you to find inspiration and motivation within it.