Thursday, 17 March 2016

Guest post --- overview of new publication on DIY institutions

In this post, guest blogger Lauren Istvandity provides an overview of a journal article written by Sarah Baker which was recently published in Archives and Records. The article, titled ‘Do-it-yourself institutions of popular music heritage: the preservation of music’s material past in community archives, museums and halls of fame’, emerges from research undertaken for the ARC funded project ‘Do-it-yourself archives of popular music’.

The idea of autonomy from larger formalized practices of heritage preservation that characterises DIY archives, museums and halls of fame may encourage a view of these places as non-conformist, perhaps disorganised and wide-ranging in their manifestations. In a new article on DIY music heritage institutions, Sarah Baker demonstrates that while the subject matter of such places is indeed wide ranging, there are a great number of similarities that further characterise DIY institutions world-wide.
Baker’s latest sole-authored article, “Do-it-yourself institutions of popular music heritage: The preservation of music’s material past in community archives, museums and halls of fame” draws on a database of technical information regarding places of DIY popular music preservation compiled from web searches and interviews with curators and volunteers. Data collected included information about the geographical location, staffing, preservation missions, funding, and collection focus among other aspects of DIY institutions around the world. With the limitations of using the English language in internet search engines, it was found that the majority of DIY museums, archives, and halls of fame were located predominantly in the United States and Europe, with an increasing number occurring in Australia and New Zealand.

Interestingly, most of the currently active DIY institutions were established between 2000 and 2014, which also coincides with a global obsession with nostalgia and tangible pop culture artefacts from recent history (e.g. vinyl records, 1970s floral print patterns, music genre revivals), a trend Simon Reynolds calls ‘retromania’. The consistency of DIY institutions opening over this period of time indicates a commitment to preserving popular music’s heritage, something that can only be viewed as beneficial to our culture.

As shown in Baker’s earlier publications, funding, staffing, and housing for artefacts are among the most problematic aspects for DIY institutions. For those in the database, it was documented that these institutions can be found in a broad variety of physical places. Most commonly, collections end up in residential, historical, or purpose built facilities, however many of these are still not ideal for the preservation of audio visual materials. About ninety percent of DIY institutions covered in the database are run by volunteers, with the remainder comprising a combination of paid staff, interns, and volunteers. The funding utilised by these places is similarly cobbled together from a number of sources, including government grants, membership fees, donations, and merchandise sales, but most of all, DIY institutions rely on in-kind support from multi-talented volunteers and community members.

The focus of DIY music museums, archives and halls of fame vary, though nearly a quarter of those included in the database have based their collection around just one artist, the most popular being Elvis Presley. Genres of music have also scored a majority of these institutions’ attention, with popular, country and jazz music and their niche sub-genres making up around half of all foci. Practices of preserving popular music’s material past most commonly comes in the form of physical artefact collection, with all sites exhibiting tangible ephemera over any other medium. The ethos behind these collections varies, however the majority of institutions listed aims akin to the phrases ‘to collect’, ‘to preserve’, and ‘to archive’. The use of DIY popular music collections is generally not restricted to a particular type of audience, although around 30 percent of sites were particularly welcoming to researchers. 

In compiling this data on DIY music preservation institutions, Baker has shown that despite detailed differences, core elements of the management, preservation practices, content and aims of many such sites are fundamentally similar. Further, an understanding of these places helps to legitimise their contribution to heritage preservation alongside highly-funded, and often government-run institutions.