Friday, 1 April 2016

Guest post --- An overview of Baker's work on DIY institutions of popular music heritage

In this post, guest blogger Zelmarie Cantillon provides an overview of key ideas emerging from my published work on DIY institutions; research that comes out of the Australian Research Council funded projects 'Popular Music and Cultural Memory' and 'Do-it-Yourself Popular Music Archives'.


Popular music’s material past has not typically been regarded as heritage in a conventional sense. Not only is popular music a relatively new part of history, but its material cultures are driven by commercial logics, and thus characterised by mass production, global distribution and ephemerality. In addition to audio recordings, these material cultures include posters, costumes, instruments, t-shirts, promotional material and band merchandise. Over the past several decades, there has been increasing interest in the cultural and historical value of popular music cultures, as marked by the growing number of sites dedicated to the collection, preservation and display of its heritage.

Popular music heritage institutions vary widely in form, incorporating archives, museums and halls of fame. Baker and Collins (2015) observe that these can be grouped into broad, fluid categories of officially authorised, self-authorised and unauthorised institutions, and further categorised by whether they are physical or online. Baker’s work focuses particularly on physical, self-authorised, ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) institutions of popular music heritage. These DIY institutions are usually community-based, founded by enthusiasts and run largely by volunteers, with limited funding and space. They operate outside of, but usually parallel to, authorised national institutions, and may often be seen to lack the symbolic capital and prestige of their authorised counterparts.

National institutions tend to have selective, representative collections which reinforce established historical narratives and canons. DIY institutions, on the other hand, typically have mandates targeted at creating comprehensive, inclusive, taste-less collections. Within communities of popular music consumption, there are commonly expressed feelings of fear and anxiety that artefacts will be deemed as unimportant, discarded as rubbish and forgotten. By incorporating marginalised materials and narratives, these DIY institutions work to ensure that popular music cultures are remembered in cultural memory. At the same time, they contribute to a more complete or complex picture of popular music’s past.

DIY institutions are usually run by amateurs who possess invaluable vernacular knowledge, but lack formal training in archiving and curation. Baker suggests that these volunteers constitute ‘communities of practice’ in which they learn archival skills collectively as they go, through first-hand experience and interactions with other volunteers. Many DIY institutions aim to emulate professional archival standards of preservation and display, as well as implementing the roles, practices and structures typical of authorised institutions. In this context, institutionalisation can be enabling rather than restrictive.

Baker and Huber (2013c) suggest that DIY institutions have cultural, social and affective functions, all of which are intertwined. Much like national institutions, the DIY institution’s cultural function is to act as a repository for history – to collect, preserve, display and provide access to popular music’s heritage. Through collecting collectively and doing-it-together, DIY institutions can foster the development of new communities and social bonds. Volunteers, for instance, can form a sense of collective identity and build friendships based on these shared interests and practices. This sociality is enabled by the affective atmosphere of DIY institutions. While national institutions are established for preservationist and intellectual purposes, DIY institutions are rooted in a love and respect for the music cultures they document. Volunteers experience affective connections to the music, the artefacts, the history, the institution, the work they perform and the other volunteers and visitors they engage with. Thus, the DIY institution can be a significant source of pleasure and meaning in their lives, and in turn, their affective investments can enrich the quality of the DIY institution.

Baker’s work highlights that long-term sustainability is one of the primary concerns for DIY institutions as they face a range of financial, spatial and human resource issues. Most of these institutions rely on inconsistent and impermanent funding sources, including donations, sponsorships, grants, membership fees and sales from gift shops. Finding or retaining a suitable space to house the collection can also pose problems, especially as a collection grows. The most significant issue that Baker identified, however, is the ageing workforce of volunteers and the difficulties in succession planning. Without interested younger generations to take over custodianship of the artefacts, they are at risk of being lost and forgotten.

DIY institutions play an important role in the preservation of popular music’s heritage. They have the potential to democratise heritage practices, often showcasing alternative or marginalised historical narratives. In addition to this, they are significant for their social and affective elements, which are often absent from national institutions. Volunteers in DIY institutions, with their affective investments and vernacular expertise, offer valuable contributions to the collective memory of popular music cultures.

Baker, Sarah 2015a, ‘Affective Archiving and Collective Collecting in Do-it-Yourself Popular Music Archives and Museums’, in Sarah Baker (ed), Preserving Popular Music Heritage: Do-it-Yourself, Do-it-Together, Routledge, New York, pp. 46–61.

Baker, Sarah 2015b, ‘Do-it-yourself institutions of popular music heritage: the preservation of music’s material past in community archives, museums and halls of fame’, Archives and Records, pp. 1–18.

Baker, Sarah 2015c, ‘Identifying Do-it-Yourself Places of Popular Music Preservation’, in Sarah Baker (ed), Preserving Popular Music Heritage: Do-it-Yourself, Do-it-Together, Routledge, New York, pp. 1–16.

Baker, Sarah and Collins, Jez 2015, ‘Sustaining popular music’s material culture in community archives and museums’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol. 21, no. 10, pp. 983–996.

Baker, Sarah, Doyle, Peter and Homan, Shane 2015, ‘Historical Records, National Constructions: The Contemporary Popular Music Archive’, Popular Music and Society, pp. 1–20.

Baker, Sarah and Huber, Alison 2015, ‘Saving “Rubbish”: Preserving Popular Music’s Material Culture in Amateur Archives and Museums’, in Sara Cohen, Robert Knifton, Marion Leonard and Les Roberts (eds), Sites of Popular Music Heritage: Memories, Histories, Places, Routledge, New York, pp. 112–124.

Baker, Sarah and Huber, Alison 2013a, ‘Locating the canon in Tamworth: historical narratives, cultural memory and Australia's “Country Music Capital”’, Popular Music, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 223–240.

Baker, Sarah and Huber, Alison 2013b, ‘”Masters of our own destiny”: cultures of preservation at the Victorian Jazz Archive in Melbourne, Australia’, Popular Music History, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 263–282.

Baker, Sarah and Huber, Alison 2013c, ‘Notes towards a typology of the DIY institution: Identifying do-it-yourself places of popular music preservation’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 5, pp. 513–530.