Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Are DIY archives sustainable?

I had hoped to make it back to Germany later this year to visit Jazz Museum Bix Eiben Hamburg and so was sad to learn of the museum’s recent closure. Once again this year (see my post from 29 January 2013) the issue of the sustainability of DIY archives has been brought to the fore.

As its website explains, this museum, a non-profit organisation housed in a building owned by the Eiben family, was devoted to the collection of ‘Old Jazz’. Run by volunteers who “work for the museum as a hobby” and who were motivated by “the love for all the musicians whose music should be conserved in order not to be forgotten”, the museum’s collections were substantial and included (as of November 2011):

1. approx. 95,000 items 78er Shellac records, including special categories.

2. approx. 75,000 items 33 rpm records, including special categories.

3. approx. 6,500 Tapes

4. approx. 150 Piano rolls

5. approx. 4,000 Jazz books

6. Several hundred old thick Edison records from 1910 - 1920

7. approx. 1,000 items 45er records

8. approx. 400 framed pictures

9. approx. 1,000 big radio vinyl records

10. approx. 7,000 Jazz-CDs

11. The complete 1,600 magnetic tapes and CDs of the 30 years lasting USA Radio show "Jazz-Revisited"

12. Thousand other materials related to Jazz such as: photos, brochures, magazines, movies, old phonographs, Announcements, sheet music. Several volumes of "Storyville". A number of volumes of "Mississippi Rag". Letters, all kinds of notification related to Jazz and many, many more.

13. approx. 500 obscure recordings, which a US-Freak donated the museum a long time ago. These recordings contain secret Jazz recordings which he has done without the knowledge of the musicians or hosts.

A video of the museum can be found on YouTube.

When I had last visited Jazz Museum Bix Eiben’s website a month or so ago I had noted that future plans had included “consolidation and confirming our position as a museum” and “planning a new building”. However, the sustainability of the museum was clearly on the volunteers’ minds as part of the planning also involved “thinking about a success[or] in case the founder might suffer under severe health problems”.

This is a common concern for the archives I have visited to-date in this project. Most of the founders and volunteers I have interviewed are over the age of 65 (some much older than this even) and speak of the “ageing workforce” being an issue to be addressed if these archives are to have long term futures.

Succession planning is a real challenge. In the case of the Victorian Jazz Archive, for example, a volunteer explained during an interview for the ‘Popular Music and Cultural Memory’ project:

“… I guess the challenge – because there are a lot of elderly folk here – their health’s not going to continue for the next ten, twenty years, so I’m thinking the challenge is, how do we get younger folk, like a 62 year old, or more 50 year olds in, and maybe some musicians in, who will want to be interested enough to keep it proceeding in the right way, and to be able to earn enough money to keep it viable.” (19 July 2011)

But, as another VJA volunteer suggested in an interview last year (26 June 2012), a DIY archive’s founder(s) can only “lay the groundwork” and it is then up to the younger generations to “step up when the time comes” and make these archives ongoing concerns. 

Places like the VJA run a range of outreach activities for young people which, it is hoped, will generate interest in jazz and subsequently the archiving of jazz. “We’re hoping that the youth that are coming through the place will be the archivists of tomorrow”, explained another volunteer at the VJA before observing that the succession question “is a real worry, and we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge it” (19 July 2011). (For more on the VJA see the section ‘Losing the volunteers of today, finding the “archivists of tomorrow”’ in the forthcoming Popular Music History article ‘“Masters of our own destiny”: cultures of preservation at the Victorian Jazz Archive in Melbourne, Australia’.)

In regards to Jazz Museum Bix Eiben, the founder had been collecting old jazz for over 60 years having, as Grace Shackman explains, “inherited his love of jazz from his father, who managed to listen to the quintessentially American music even when it was forbidden in Nazi Germany”. I don’t have the exact details of what led to the closure, but have been led to understand that, other than the shellacs which have been retained by the founder, the museum’s various collections have now been distributed to a range of interested parties --- “Now it’s time for a younger generation to take on the collections”, said one volunteer in response to my inquiries (pers. comm., 13 July 2013). It will be interesting to see what becomes of those collections, and whether they will be made publicly accessible in the future.

The folding of the Jazz Museum Bix Eiben is a blow to Hamburg which also saw the closure of its Beatlemania Museum in 2012.

The news about the closure of Jazz Museum Bix Eiben Hamburg (and also the correspondence I had earlier in the year with the founder of the British Archive of Country Music about that archive's future), raises questions about the sustainability of DIY archives once those involved with their founding are unable to continue (due to ill health, for example), move on or pass away. Some places, like the South Australian Jazz Archive, have told me about contingency plans that involve depositing the collection in 'authorised' or 'official' institutions like the State Library in the event that there is no-one to run the archive as a DIY concern. However, this too has its problems with such institutions notorious, as the SAJA President told me, for breaking up collections or, as a founder of Vienna's SR-Archiv österreichischer Popularmusik suggested, burying collections in basements never to be seen again. Given that the impetus for the establishment of so many DIY archives is to save popular musics material culture from this very fate (see the forthcoming book chapter 'Saving "rubbish"'), what happens to collections is of genuine concern to those working in such archives and some volunteers describe a sense of "urgency" in finding real, lasting solutions.