Friday, 20 August 2010

Holidays, memories and the year of the archive

Holidays very often provide the 'free' time we feel we need to visit the past. I'm thinking of visits to museums, art galleries, and special exhibitions. One set of memories that I experienced a few days ago was that of the world of circus. Housed backstage at the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth are the props from years gone by, photographs too, and literally, the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint greets the intrepid searcher who wishes to delve into circus history. This venue boasts 1 of the 4 remaining amazing water features still operating throughout the world today – a circus ring that drops down and pours water in, showing water spectaculars.

This set me to thinking of what we all do or don't keep; stuff, really. And in the WI world there is so much stuff. Every federation office will have artefacts and books and the like going back to the beginning of the life of that federation. I am a hoarder, so disposing of anything takes me ages since I fear I might need something that I no longer have because I threw it out! Many of you will probably know that feeling. Mind you, the NFWI possessions from the formation of the organisation, the archives, are now housed in the Women's Library in London having been rescued from the garage in our WI College in Oxford, Denman College.

A few years ago a great inventory was taken of all the textiles in the possession of WIs and federations and this is kept by the National Needlework Archive.

Throughout the federations many a County Records Office houses the minutes and paper archives of individual WIs. I know the photographs of my own WI are held in the records office too and they are "borrowed back" every time we have a special event when we want to look back at what the WI has done over the years. Many an album will have photographs behind the pages of self adhering plastic. I have learnt that this is not good as chemicals in the mix turn the photographs brown over time. We should all be using albums with the old fashioned photo corners and filmy tissue paper dividing the pages.

Quite a number of WIs now have their committee minutes and WI meetings records online. Others use this method but also keep a paper copy. And, of course, many WIs still use paper copies only. I wonder, though, in say 50 years from now, if many or our archives will be on memory sticks.

In my own federation we had quite an array of written pieces from the past and I recall one such, "A History of the federation", presented as a speech at the Autumn Council Meeting on 18 October 1952 - the month I was born! I quote the final paragraph:
"1938. The local authorities called on us to find billets for evacuees, and in 24 hours the committees of 70 villages had helped to get promises of accommodation for 5,000. Then we knew and rejoiced in our strength, and could go forward undaunted, secure in the confidence that so long as our great movement holds fast to it principles , and is based as if on the "spiritual ideals of fellowship, truth. , tolerance and justice" there is perhaps no limit to what it can accomplish for our home and our country".

2012 is to be the Year of the Archive. I know many federations have archivists but if all 69 of them had just one archivist each, then our history would be taped and tidied for the future. It is said the WI is one of the major custodians of our heritage, the social history of England and Wales. This we should never doubt.