“The experience of each person leaves behind a unique landscape of existence”: Interview with Dr. Tomás Mac Conmara

Today, I’m speaking with oral historian Tomás Mac Conmara, project manager with the Cork Folklore Project in Cork, Ireland, about the importance of memory, the art of oral history collection, and the place of folklore in archival development.

(Archivoz) What was it that first interested you in oral history and the collection of memories?

(T.M.) That is very easy to answer.  It was the voice of my old neighbour Jim.  My understanding and appreciation of memory, in its broadest sense, is rooted in my townland.  I was fortunate to grow up in a rural mountainside area called Ballymalone in the east of County Clare in the west of Ireland.  The nearest house was a half mile away and belonged to an old man named Jim McNamara, born in 1908.  From the age of eight I would visit Jim, sometimes to bring him messages, but mostly just to sit and listen to my old friend.  Jim could not read or write.  In his almost 100 years, he never ventured far from his local place and had little interaction with the modern world.  Yet he remains, to this day, one of the most profoundly wise people I have ever spent time with.  I have met intellectuals, analysts, and academics. Yet few have demonstrated the fundamental wisdom and shrewdness of my neighbour.  I was twenty-six years old in January 2007 when my time with Jim came to an end.  Our relationship instilled in me an appreciation of his generation and the value of listening and hearing, deeply.  I know that across my country and across the globe, quiet, humble reservoirs of wisdom often remain silent, answers awaiting a question.  I have been honoured to record hundreds of them as an oral historian and when I sit and listen to Jim’s generation, I am reminded that I remain a student; Ancora Imparo.

Jim McNamara

At the age of fourteen, I began to write notes, old Irish words, traditions and folklore in copybooks, that I described as ‘folklore of my place’; what I would perhaps have later called ‘Béaloideas’ (education from the mouth).  Many of those words came from the mouth of my neighbour Jim.  However, my father, Dan McNamara (1932-2019), loved the old Irish tradition of going ‘on cuaird’ (social visiting) and I would accompany him when he spent time with the friends of his youth.  I would sit in the corner and make rough, barely legible notes.  I still have those notebooks.  At eighteen, I bought a mini-cassette recorder and began to take more seriously this duty I felt to record the memories of our past.

While always interested in the past, one period of history attracted me particularly. When I was about ten years of age, I discovered a revolver in my townland, dated from the Irish Revolutionary Period (1916-1923), and soon became captivated by that time. Before long I realised that to understand how such a weapon came to be concealed in my own landscape, I would have to look to older generations. Later, my discovery began to crystallise an emerging personal philosophical position about how the past is best understood. The Irish War of Independence, fought between a young volunteer force and a centuries old (British) empire, played out in my townland. The gun was tangible evidence of this struggle, concealed by time, nature and neglect. Memory and tradition exhibit a similar dynamic, often simply awaiting the question.  The finding of a Webley revolver in the ruins of a derelict cottage in a remote rural townland presented a perfect metaphor for the research I subsequently undertook, outlined in both my PhD and my book, The Time of the Tans.

(Archivoz) How does the Cork Folklore Project attract that interest? Can you give us some background on the project and how you came to it?

(T.M.) In 2006, I began building an oral history project in my home county of Clare, a systematic effort to document the memories of Clare’s oldest citizens.  In 2008, Cuimhneamh an Chláir (Irish for ‘Memories of Clare’) was established.  From 2008 until 2014, I was the Project Co-ordinator for Cuimhneamh and led its development as Ireland’s first county-wide, volunteer-led oral history endeavour. During that time, I became more aware of the work of the Cork Folklore Project (CFP) and its impact both within the community and in academia.  When the opportunity arose in 2016 to lead that project, I was delighted to take it.  The CFP mirrored many of my own personal ambitions regarding the collection and dissemination of oral history and folklore.  In addition, the challenge of taking on one of Ireland’s most prestigious folklore organisations was a huge attraction.

For many years, I had assisted in the establishment of folklore and oral history groups across Ireland.  With some encouragement, I set up Mac Conmara Heritage Consulting in 2015, to offer professional services in oral history, folklore, and heritage management.  I helped to develop projects like the Military Archives Oral History Project, chronicling the memory of the Irish Defence Forces, including overseas UN Missions to the Congo, Lebanon, and elsewhere. I also work with Waterways Ireland, Dublin Port, An Garda Síóchana and several local authorities in the development of large scale oral history and folklore collection and dissemination projects.

The CFP is a community research and oral history archive founded within the Department of Folklore & Ethnology at University College Cork in 1996. This year, we will celebrate our 25th anniversary.   From the beginning, we have collected folklore and oral histories on an array of topics, documenting the everyday lives of the people of Cork and encouraging them to participate in the process themselves.  Today, the CFP archive contains over 1,000 hours of sound and video recordings (with attendant transcriptions and archival metadata) and around 6,000 photographs.  We are a model of long-term qualitative data collection, preservation and dissemination.  Our research is rooted in and engages with the geographical, social and cultural communities of Cork.  In addition to our highly regarded free annual journal, The Archive, we have a strong and consistent research output.  We make every effort to open our archive to the community as a public resource.  In 2017, I worked with project partners to move our operation to the North Cathedral in Cork City, to develop an Outreach Hub for people to engage with the project.  In 2021, we were shortlisted for a National Good Causes Award, a further demonstration of our reputation across the country.

The Cork Folklore Project Team in 2020

(Archivoz) How would you define “folklore”? How is this definition supported in the work of the Project?

(T.M.) Many who truly understand folklore would not consider a definition important. I  personally believe that the more rigid the categorisation of the material we collect, the more limited our engagement with it.  In over 600 personal interviews, I have never conducted one that did not touch on a multiplicity of topics: personal testimony, local tradition and history, folklore, among others.  The oral historian, particularly those intensively dedicated to the craft, tends to encounter multiple ‘definable’ dimensions of experience within each recording.  I believe there is a richness to the intersectionality of it all and that a recognition of nuance better reflects the realities of life. At the CFP, we largely accept the interpretation offered by Irish folklorist and ethnologist Kevin Danaher, who described folklore as ‘the sayings and doings of ordinary people.’  This definition opens up a wide expanse of experience, knowledge, and insight.

(Archivoz) One of my favorite features on your website is the way in which you’ve mapped oral histories on to a map of the city. Why does this this sort of spatial representation matter? What value do you think it adds to the memories collected?

(T.M.) The CFP Memory Map is one of our most popular methods of engaging the public, so it is clear that spatial representation of memory is effective. Our memory is often hardwired to the spatial.  In order to strengthen the connection between the people of Cork and the landscape of memory around them, spatial representation of story and memory was critical.  This allows people to relate memory to identifiable places and in turn triggers further memories which generate multiple connections to and interpretations of a singular place.  It adds value both for the interviewee and the interviewer.  The ability to explore a moment of memory in the context of a recognisable landscape is a great opportunity.  It allows us to open the lens on both the present and the past and track changes through the eyes of those familiar with the landscape and gain fresh insight from those seeing it for the first time. For example, in 2005, we undertook a series of recordings with immigrants to the city, which infused our collection with insights both of those reflecting on their place of birth and of those getting to know their new home in Cork.

(Archivoz) This last year, we’ve all seen the world change around us due to COVID-19, and at the Project you’ve made an effort to capture those changes in the COVID-19 collection. As someone steeped in the effects and aftereffects of traumatic experiences in Irish history, how do you think this latest one fits into the bigger picture? Are you planning an oral history project focused specifically on this topic?

(T.M.) For me, contemporary Western society has become increasingly existentalist in character.  As a result, we hear a lot about the ‘unprecedented nature’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, without much reflection on other traumatic events in the not too distant past.  The pandemic is, of course, unprecedented in its specific nature, rapidity of transmission, and universality. However, as a historian of modern Ireland, I must take into account the experiences of previous generations who lived through similarly life-altering periods, like the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Civil War, the Economic War (1932-39), the ‘Emergency’ (World War II), and more. In broader context, the impact of COVID-19 on daily life seems somewhat different.  Nevertheless, as an observer of society and people, one cannot ignore the gravity and significance of the current pandemic.   Therefore, in 2020, the CFP launched Chronicles of COVID-19. The project was established in March 2020, led by my colleague Dr Cliona O’Carroll, to document the sights, sounds, everyday actions, thoughts and conversations of the pandemic, so that our community has an enduring record of these times.  We invited contributors to fill out an online questionnaire and share their own experiences or those of their neighbours, family or community. We also encouraged the submission of photographs, audio and video.  The material will be presented both as a research resource and an online exhibition.

(Archivoz) In a recent presentation on the Irish War of Independence, you noted that “everyone’s a story-teller in their own way.” I would add to this the idea that every person is in themselves an archive. Putting these two ideas together, it is clear that not only is each person a storyteller, but that those stories matter and are worth preserving as historical artifacts. What are your thoughts on this?

(T.M.) After over twenty years involved in the collection, preservation and use of memory, I am convinced that there is value to everyone’s story in its own right. Furthermore, when combined with others’ stories, they allow us to form patterns and discern the relationships between the individual and the collective. I remain convinced of the pedagogic and intellectual capacities of many older people, and the positive impact they exert on future generations.  Some suggest that the relatively homogenous nature of early to mid-twentieth century Irish society implies an elderly population presenting a sameness of experience.  I reject this entirely and suggest that this impression is based on a failure to look beyond a uniform exterior to see the profound individuality inside. The experience of each person leaves behind a unique landscape of existence. In a life story interview, a subject’s interiority can be accessed only when the intention is to seek out their true identity, not simply to generate a biography. This allows the collector to travel to sometimes rarely visited districts of a person’s memory and unearth great treasures, in gentle cooperation with the custodian.

Paddy Gleeson was Ireland’s oldest man when he died in 2010 at the age of 106. He was interviewed extensively by Tomás Mac Conmara as part of his research into the Irish War of Independence.

My ambition as a historian is to cultivate in myself an understanding of the past, not just accumulate information or knowledge.  The retention of vast amounts of information, in my experience, does not on its own necessarily correlate to an understanding. As an oral historian, I must understand both people and the past. The opportunity to place ourselves within the fold of memory, which takes us to the human experience of our past, is rapidly fading. Your question relates specifically to a lecture I gave recently on the memory of the Irish War of Independence. My research in that area advances the notion that to understand a war which occurred and was understood at such an inherently local level, the historian must return to the level of the parish, village, townland, and street.  In the same way, when exploring the history of Brazil, one must go to the favela, or in the Basque Country, the udalerriak. The historian must metaphorically get down on his or her hands and knees to find the fragments of memory and history where it occurred and assemble from those remains a deeper understanding of the past. In the local, echoes can be found of events only listed in conventional archival records. A work of history that excludes the voices closest to those experiences, or that fails to recognise in memory the illuminating traces of that past, can only result in an incomplete narrative.

 – Images by permission of Tomás Mac Conmara.


Interview conducted by: Vance Woods

Mexicana in the Archives: Alfredo Bouret’s fashion illustrations

In 2019, the RMIT Design Archives (RDA) was delighted to host Masters of Cultural Heritage student Rebecca Lloyd. Rebecca’s internship focussed on the archive of Alfredo Bouret, in particular his illustrations of traditional Mexican costumes. When Rebecca began her internship, the brief was to concentrate on writing interpretative texts for a small group of previously uncatalogued illustrations in the RDA’s collection; however, the project delivered much more – providing great insights into Bouret’s life in Mexico and Paris.

Who is Alfredo Bouret?

Mexican-born Alfredo Bouret (1926-2018) was one of fashion’s acclaimed illustrators, as well as an inventive visual merchandiser and successful retailer. Born Alfredo Gonzalez Acevez in 1926 of Mexican-French parentage, Bouret studied part-time at the Mexican School of Art in the 1940s, while working in advertising and with artist Josefina Mesa as a costume designer for Mexico’s nascent film industry. From 1946 until 1948, his fashion illustrations appeared in the pages (and on the covers) of the Mexican fashion magazine La Famille.

In 1947 he won a six-month design scholarship to Paris at the first Fair and Exhibition of the Mexican Fashion Industries. His prize-winning entry was an illustration of a Mexican costume. Bouret arrived in Paris in 1948 and briefly worked as an apprentice designer for Pierre Balmain, who advised him to concentrate on fashion illustration and introduced him to the editor of French Vogue. From 1948 until 1962, Bouret’s sketches of the latest couture fashions appeared in the pages of French and British Vogue. Notably he was the only artist permitted to record the collections of Balenciaga.

Photograph featuring Alfred Bouret

Alfredo Bouret pictured on the right, at an exhibition of Spanish drawings at Rancho Del Artista, Mexico. Photograph in Scrapbook relating to the life and work of Alfredo Bouret, Gift of Les Robert Aitken, 2007, RMIT Design Archives Collection, 0115.2010.0001, Unknown photographer.

Melbourne to Mexico City – developing an international exchange

During her internship, Rebecca developed a rapport with Elena Ana Mallet, a design curator living in Mexico City, who had contacted the RMIT Design Archives Archive seeking information about Bouret and his creative practice. Rebecca kept in touch with Mallet during the internship, and Mallet’s insights into the context of Bouret’s early work in Mexico were invaluable.

Mallet suggested possible antecedents for his work, including Luis Marqués Romay (1899-1978), a Cuban photographer living in Mexico who did an extensive study of Mexican traditional costumes in the 1930s. As well as artist Carlos Mérida (1891-1978), who fused European modern painting with Latin American themes (especially those related to Guatemala and Mexico) and became fascinated by Mexican folklore. Mallet also suggested that Ramón Valdiosera (1918-2017) a Mexican costume designer, who developed an interest in Mexican clothing and incorporated motifs into garments for the modern woman, may also have provided a precedent for the Mexican inspired fashions Bouret later developed for his Mexicana stores.

Translating the archives

Rebecca studied and catalogued a selection of Bouret’s drawings, trawled through his scrapbook, a treasure trove of press clippings, photographs and other ephemera, rehousing loose sheets along the way. Fortunately Rebecca’s tool kit included studies in Spanish in Granada, Spain in 2017, and experience transcribing texts from hand written documents. She carefully studied the Spanish language annotations on the drawings and resorted to Spanish-language blogs for further information about the costumes depicted in the illustrations and shared these with Mallet to double check her facts. Rebecca also located several more illustrations and annotated drafts and was “delighted to find herself immersed in Spanish cursive writing!” Her Spanish lessons proved a bonus for this project.

Scrapbook containing newspaper clippings and ephemera relating to the life and work of Alfredo Bouret, RMIT Design Archives Collection, 0115.2010.0001.

The scrapbook records the first exhibition of Bouret’s Mexican illustrations at ‘El Rancho del Artista’, which according to Mallet, is a mythical place in the history of Mexican art. In 1937, an artist village had been established in the Colonia Del Valle neighbourhood of Mexico City, and here numerous well-known artists operated, including Diego Rivera, Jorge Gonzalez and Jose Clemente Orozco.

Here is one of Rebecca’s new labels for the collection, which discusses El Rancho del Artista:

The exhibition at the Rancho del Artista took place between 2-5 April 1954, and featured twenty illustrations of indigenous Mexican dress, created by Alfredo Bouret circa 1953. Bouret returned to Mexico “year after year” after his move to Paris in 1948 (Excelsior 1954). On one such trip, Bouret had decided to illustrate various regional costumes depicting a side of Mexico that was “removed from what Hollywood and tourists saw as ‘Mexican’” (Lex Aitken, 2007). During this time, Bouret met with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who directed him in his journeys to remote communities; the whereabouts of some being almost hearsay and reachable only on the back of a horse or donkey. Over many months, Bouret compiled a collection of thirty-five illustrations of indigenous Mexican dress, depicting individuals from communities in the states of Puebla, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Michoacán, Chiapas and Mexico. These works showcase the diverse styles of dress created and worn by the people of these communities and received great interest and praise from Mexican and international communities alike in their exhibition. Of these thirty-five illustrations, twenty were exhibited at the Rancha del Artista in Mexico over 2-5 April. A second exhibition in was held at Jean Desses’ Bazaar in Paris between 19th November – 10th December the same year.

Under the patronage of Condé Nast and the Mexican ambassador to France, Jaime Torres Bodet, “fifty authentic costumes from the most picturesque regions” of Mexico were featured with the goal of spreading the “tradition and culture” of the Mexican people to the wider world (Gacetta Social 1954, Bouret Scrapbook, p.11). The exhibition was chiefly organised by Alfredo González Bouret and featured a series of the artist’s illustrations of indigenous Mexican dress, exhibited in Mexico earlier the same year. Bouret aimed to inspire Europe’s top fashion designers with the bright colours and designs of Mexican dress and provide a “true” representation of Mexico outside of what was depicted in Hollywood at the time (Lex Aitken, 2007). The exhibition in Paris, like the one in Mexico, was a success, and received a great amount of interest and praise from international audiences. Bouret’s illustrations of Mexican dress were accompanied by traditional hand-crafts, jewellery, textiles and costumes imported from Mexico for the exhibition. Adaptations of traditional fashions were created by Parisian designers, and displayed on mannequins beside Bouret’s original illustrations.

Rebecca Lloyd, RMIT Design Archives, November 2019, photographer Ann Carew.

Sharing Mexican culture

Also pasted into the scrapbook are clippings from the Mexican paper Excelsior, many of which mention the positive tourism that Bouret’s work would bring to Mexico. One such clipping states,”Alfredo Bouret el mejor embajador que México puede mandar al Viejo Mundo”. [“Alfredo Bouret the best ambassador Mexico can send to the Old World”]. (Interestingly these records are not easily accessible in Mexico, as the digitisation of newspapers and periodicals is not as common as in Australia).

In 1962 Bouret opened a Mexicana store in London, where he sold Mexican wares as well as his own range of Mexican inspired fashions. Then in 1969, his long-term partner, Australian-born interior designer Lex Robert Aitken, suggested he open a Mexicana store in Sydney, Australia, which he did in a business partnership with British fashion designer John Cavanagh. The Australian venture lasted just 3 years. When the boutique closed in 1972, Bouret returned to London.

Bouret closed his London store in 1985 and settled in Australia, becoming an Australian citizen in 1990. Following the death of his partner Lex in 2013, Bouret moved to Canada where he lived his last years with his sister and her family. Bouret died in Vancouver, Canada, in 2018, aged 90.


Rebecca showed great curiosity and rigour during the internship, leading her to explore the political and social contexts in Mexico that prompted Bouret to create the illustrations. Her research uncovered a fascinating story, previously hidden in the Archives, of cultural exchange between Paris and Mexico and Bouret’s role as an ambassador for Mexican culture, through his illustrations and then later through his Mexicana stores in London and Sydney.

Please visit the RMIT Design Archives’ website for further information about the Alfredo Bouret Collection.

Banner image credit: Alfredo Bouret Illustration of woman and child from Patzcuaro region, Michaoacan, Mexico, c. 1953, Gift of Les Robert Aitken, RMIT Design Archives Collection, 2007, 0015.2008.0067 © Maria Elena Gurrola Gonzalez.

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We Can Decide Where to Stand: Advocating for Aboriginal Priorities as Archivists and Information Workers


One of my main professional interests relates to the intersections between practice and theory, and how we can lead transformation to reshape and support structural changes within cultural institutions. I believe archivists and information workers can play a key role in advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights in cultural heritage collections. This includes, for example:

  • Supporting sovereignty over access, use and representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories and information held in archives and libraries.
  • Proactively building spaces for deep listening and understanding of our own positionality.

In an historical moment where structural racism and white privilege have been brought to the light across society, and the world is pulsing for change— it is even more crucial to know where we will be standing in our professional lives to ensure our commitment is enduring [1].

Working to centre Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices

Over the last decade, I have been working and collaborating on several projects and initiatives advocating for increased visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices across the sector; advancing respectful access to historical records held in cultural institutions; and pushing for increased provision of resources and tools for local community archives so that people can care for their local collections and stories on Country.

I have contributed to projects such as the Indigenous Archives Collective; the building of the State Library of NSW Mukurtu site, Gather [2]; the creation of the strategy Indigenous Spaces in Library Places; and the establishment of the NSW Australian Mukurtu Hub.

When I moved from Italy to Gadigal Land (Sydney, NSW, Australia) to study and work in the field of archives, my drive was the advancement of social justice and human rights, and I started to be especially interested in how the archival profession contributes to this area [3]. This interest was sparked thanks to the many Aboriginal, First Nations and Native American scholars, professionals, activists, and community members who have exposed the vital importance of control and transparency over their historical archives to achieve concrete social justice and building of a nation based on the recognition of past harm against Indigenous peoples (Allison Boucher Krebs, Henrietta Fourmile, Jennifer O’Neal, Loriene Roy, Kirsten Thorpe, Lyndon Ormond-Parker, Martin Nakata, Shannon Faulkhead, and many others).

We need to be the change in the sector

Despite this long-standing advocacy across the sector, there are still structural changes that need to happen to be able to develop research agendas which are built upon community needs, aspirations and control—rather than fostering a model which aims to build partnerships to fulfil institutional needs and visions [4]. Events like the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol during the BlackLivesMatter protests in June 2020 [5] are powerful examples of how the disruption of national symbols shocks and disturbs. This is because honest conversations on the benefit that colonialism, human trafficking, slavery and structural inequalities have brought to our countries are still failing to happen.

Cultural institutions have an opportunity to be present and visible in these debates right now, becoming arenas for contested histories, spaces for dismantling stereotypes and where informed activism can flourish. In the NSW (Australian) context, some of the questions which still need to be addressed include the communities’ ability to benefit from the co-design of projects and research; the impact of dispersed collections and issues of provenance; the support needed for the management of local community archives and digital keeping places; the role of cultural institutions in overcoming the digital divide (both in terms of access to Internet and digital tools); the increase of Aboriginal employment and professional paths; and the growth of communities of practice of people across the sector who can support Aboriginal leadership and community priorities.

But first, we must listen and acknowledge

Before advocating for change, we must firstly acknowledge the deep harm that past colonial practices have inflicted and try to understand the impact that these histories had, and still have on people [6]. Growing cultural competence is fundamental not only in understanding diverse standpoints and worldviews, but to support direct calls for action, both from an organisational and personal point of view [7].

As an Italian migrant to Australia, I have committed myself to deeper learning, including reflecting on my role in this space, and on how I can continue to support Aboriginal aspirations within the cultural sector [8]. Reflecting on my own positionality and standpoint has been—and is every day—a powerful way of understanding my own bias, which I carry during my work. But it has also been an instructive journey, to recognise how my double perspective of working in the Aboriginal space and being an Italian woman could make a contribution in this space.

As Yorta Yorta woman, public health professional and academic Summer May Finlay reminded us in occasion of the last Reconciliation Week:

“As just three per cent of the Australian population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need the other 97 per cent of Australians to do the heavy lifting if we are ever to see true reconciliation. This National Reconciliation Week is a good time to decide where you fit. And if you are tokenistic, or an ally, ask yourself what you can do to become an accomplice in supporting the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people […]” [9]

Aboriginal cultural heritage materials remain disconnected and dispersed

Throughout my work, the concept of displaced and misplaced archives has come up constantly among Aboriginal peoples and communities, along with the thick layers of representations, narratives, histories, politics, violence, silences, ownership and responsibilities intertwined within these dispersed stories.

It remains the case that many Aboriginal cultural heritage materials held in Australian and overseas institutions remain disconnected and dispersed from their communities of origins. The difficulties and frustrations that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience when trying to access this material, has motivated me to reflect on the existing theories around displaced archives (for example, through the work of Anne Gilliland, James Lowry, Michelle Caswell and Sue McKemmish), and on how the current transnational legal debate around physical and digital repatriation of displaced records to marginalised communities needs to seek new paradigms and frameworks to result in effective changes.

I will explore this topic as part of my doctoral studies, which focuses on the power structures embedded in displaced archives, with a particular focus on Italy, and on the opportunities that the digital circulation of knowledge could offer to the conversation around these records.


To be proactive in increasing our own cultural competence, reflecting on our positionality and opening up spaces for deep listening are crucial steps to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander priorities across the cultural sector in the long-term, and advocating for structural changes.

Drawing the nexus between power dynamics embedded in displaced collections and the human rights of communities this information is related to, my PhD aims to contribute deeper understanding to these questions in order to build dialogue in this area, and build spaces of partnerships and collaborations which could benefit both communities and institutions.

References and Notes

[1] Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and professionals have been standing up all over the world to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, reminding us that #AboriginalLivesMatter and that structural racism is very present in Australia today.

[2] The Content Management System Mukurtu is an open source community digital access platform designed to meet the needs of Indigenous communities worldwide. More information is available at

[3] The Gadigal people of the Eora Nation are the Traditional Owners of the area we now call the Sydney CBD. A great resource to know the areas in which area we stand is the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, available online at

[4] Authors and scholars such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Jo-ann Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Jason De Santolo, Larissa Behrendt have written about the challenge of Indigenous research to Western paradigms. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni provides an overview in his article Decolonising research methodology must include undoing its dirty history.

[5] To find out more about the questions raised by the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue read The Guardian , BBC, or The Conversation. For an Australian perspective, read Nathan mudyi Sentence’s Whose History: the role of statues and monuments in Australia and this SBS story.

[6] Taking control of learning and reflecting on history and racism is everyone’s responsibility. Some useful resources are the Anti-Racism Resources for White People in Australia, or the Anti-Racism Resources from Australia and Beyond, among many others. For a perspective on the role of Australian museums read Deaths in custody: What can museums do to effect change? by Dr Sandy O’Sullivan

[7] An example is the great post of Melissa Bennet for Archivoz (@HistorianMel) Decolonising the Archive: Responsibilities for Researchers and Archive Professionals.

[8] Galassi, M. (2019) ‘My Cultural Competence Journey/An Italian perspective of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Services in GLAM’, Indigenous Archives Collective,

[9] May Finlay, S. (2020) ‘Where do you fit? Tokenistic, ally – or accomplice?’, Croakey independent, in-depth social journalism for health,

Banner image credit: “Northcote street art – ‘Change’” by Melbourne Streets Avant-garde, used under CC BY / Aboriginal flag colours and black background added to original image.

Performance management of an archival kind: the NIDA Archives

About NIDA

The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) is Australia’s leading centre for education and training in the performing arts across the full range of dramatic disciplines including acting, costume, design, directing, musical theatre, properties, technical theatre, stage management and writing. NIDA began teaching in 1959 and is Australia’s first professional dramatic arts training institute. It continues to deliver primarily practice-led training methods, staging over 15 public productions per year to showcase student work. Alumni include actors Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett, designers Catherine Martin and Deborah Riley and many others who have made their name locally in the theatre and internationally on screen.

Photograph of 1975 NIDA Acting Class

Acting Class, 1975, featuring Mel Gibson (left). Photo by George Pashuk, © NIDA 1977

A collection of cultural significance

The unique collection of material held by the NIDA Archives was independently assessed in 2015 to be of national cultural significance. The assessment highlighted select record series within the archives, with areas of exceptional significance being the photography set and costume designs for NIDA, and records of the Jane Street Theatre and the Old Tote Theatre Company. Corporate records and material related to theatrical pedagogy were also assessed to have high significance.

Photo of a theatre set model

Set Model for Jane Street Theatre production ‘Don’s Party’, 1972. Photo by Julia Mant, © NIDA 2013

Establishing a formal program for NIDA’s records and archives

NIDA is proud of its history and place in the Australian post-WWII cultural landscape. In 2005, an archives program and repository were established as part of the lead up to NIDA’s 50th Birthday celebrations in 2009. The program objectives at that time were an oral history project, consolidating the paper-based archives (which up until that point were stored in various internal and external locations) and developing a costume collection.

The establishment of a formal program was not the first attempt at managing the archives. The NIDA Library, established in 1980, had collected performance-related items such as production audiovisual recordings, prompt copies and a range of publications including the annual reports and newsletters. In 1984, students from the then Graduate Diploma of Archives Administration at the University of NSW described NIDA’s archival holdings as a student-led project. From there in 1988-89, NIDA employed a former arts administrator but non-archivist to arrange and describe the NIDA and Old Tote Theatre Company records, which he did with much enthusiasm, although unfortunately creating a unique system of arrangement which did not translate to improved access and management.

In late 2019, during NIDA’s 60th Anniversary year, the NIDA Archives returned to NIDA’s main campus in Kensington NSW having spent close to 15 years off-site in a large warehouse. With a centralised office and purpose-built repository, the move is the latest reinvention of the archival collection. The return back to the main campus is an opportunity to consolidate and establish a professionally run, in-house archives according to the archival principle that records which have value as authentic evidence of administrative, corporate, cultural and intellectual activity are made, kept and used.

Concurrently in 2005, the records management program was established with the introduction of an electronic document and records management system (EDRMS) to replace what had been a relatively well-organised paper-based file series run by the administration arm. The EDRMS implementation had some initial success but with limited resources and changing organisational structures, a decision was made to combine the records program and the archives program in 2010.

The decision to employ a Corporate Archives and Records Manager and combine the two programs provided NIDA with a great opportunity to ensure the current information management and recordkeeping practices support the long-term preservation of NIDA’s business, legal and historical records — in all formats. The unit now supports three systems: the records management system (Content Manager 9.2), the digital asset management system (Fotoware), and the archives control system. A suite of policies and procedures have been developed to support the business, legal and historical requirements including an in-house disposal authority which sets out the retention periods for classes of records.

The dichotomy of NIDA’s records

NIDA’s primary functions are education and arts. For recordkeeping practice, this dichotomy requires different demands. NIDA is a not-for-profit non-government organisation (public company limited by guarantee) and therefore not subject to either Australian state or federal government archival legislation — it chooses to have an archive. It is, however, subject to a range of legislative requirements to demonstrate good recordkeeping and retain records in accordance with various educational, employment, financial, privacy, work, health and safety, and building code regulations.

However, NIDA was also designed along the lines of a theatre company and its core pedagogical principle is practice-led teaching. Many of NIDA’s key archival records (including those highlighted in the 2015 Significance Assessment) stem from the repertoire of productions, showcases, exhibitions and presentations by students. This includes the extensive analogue and digital photographic holdings that are managed and accessed via the digital asset management system. In this regard, there can be an expectation that the Archives might hold only the staples of the theatrical historical record: programs, press cuttings, photos, prompts and production records. The business archives lack that star quality.

Photo of NIDA performance 1979

NIDA 3rd year student production, ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, 1979. Photo by George Pashuk, © NIDA 1979

Photo of NIDA Performance 2019

NIDA production ‘pool (no water)’, 2019. Photo by Patrick Boland, © NIDA 2019

The challenge ahead

Fifteen years since the inception of the archives and records programs at NIDA, the challenge ahead is one shared by many archivists and record managers: how to ensure the long-term preservation of NIDA’s digital archives? In certain respects, NIDA is in a good position with a strong, systems focus across its workplace. Almost all current process and output is digital in format and very little paper-based records are created or maintained as physical records. The challenge is translating the unstructured and creative into full and accurate records stored in identifiable locations with the appropriate metadata and digital preservation paths mapped out. Issues include clearly setting out the difference between an electronic records management system and the digital archives; understanding the retention and access requirements around business system datasets as new systems are introduced; preservation file formats; and decommissioned email accounts, and engagement by records creators and users in the program. A combined records management and archives role assists with this challenge as we can support the digital records creation stage through to digital archival retention and preservation.

NIDA has evolved over the past 60 years and will continue to do so. As such the NIDA Archives and Records Program will continue its recent objective of building trust and flexibility into system design while maintaining key archival principles — responding as much as directing.

Banner image credit: NIDA production ‘Ah Tuzenbach. A Melancholic Cabaret’, 2018. Photo by Patrick Boland, © NIDA 2018.


“Repurposing and remixing the past is the root of all creativity”: Interview with Jocelyn Arem, GRAMMY nominee and founder of Arbo Radiko

Today, we talk with Jocelyn Arem, founder of the Arbo Radiko archival storytelling studio, about leveraging the past to redefine the future and how she uses hidden archival materials to retell stories that otherwise might remain unheard.

(Archivoz) What is archival storytelling?

(J.A.) Archival storytelling is the creative practice of resurfacing hidden, untapped and untold historical treasures and reimagining that content in various storytelling presentations that speak to modern day audiences.

(Archivoz) Tell us a little about your studio, Arbo Radiko. What do you do, and what inspires you most about your work?

(J.A.) In the age of technology, we have a greater ability to share content than ever before. Content is currency; it has the potential to connect us, deepen our understanding of our world, create visibility and empathy, and spur activism to make our world better. Yet we often amass years of valuable but hidden content – the stories in our archives – which, when unearthed and presented thoughtfully, can be utilized to create new marketing, fundraising, brandraising, and personal value, reaffirm our identities, and connect us more deeply to each other.

Arbo Radiko (“Tree Root”) is the only GRAMMY Award-nominated archival storytelling studio that helps visionary creative organizations, legacy artist estates, brands, media companies, record labels, publishing houses, museums, arts and cultural institutions, celebrity figures and pioneers in music, film, dance, theater, literature, culinary and visual art repurpose and curate hidden material into valuable, inspirational modern day content. We create radical reimaginings, reinventions, and transhistorical fusions across print and digital platforms that build value from existing content. Our passion is remixing archival material in today’s context with modern multimedia storytelling tools to rediscover the past and inspire the future.

As an artist, producer, storyteller and educator (I teach classes and workshops at the School of the New York Times), I have always been passionate about the power of creativity and culture to uplift and connect us as human beings. Repurposing and remixing the past is the root of all creativity. The music, film, food, dance, stories we experience today are only branches on a generational tree rooted in the stories of those who came before us. We always consciously or unconsciously reference the past in our creative work. Archival storytelling brings to light that inherent creative connection and exposes the power of stories to teach us about the uniqueness of our lives while rooting us in a shared human experience. Bringing these connections to life and sharing them with others can illuminate and inspire the future of creativity on a global scale.

(Archivoz) Arbo Radiko’s philosophy expresses two complementary ideas: bringing “new voices to bear on the past,” and using the results to “inspire the future.” What does that sort of dialogue entail?

(J.A.) Arbo Radiko collaborates with today’s creatives to curate, remix and produce multimedia content, connecting untapped work with today’s diverse audiences. Our studio is made up of a global collective of diverse creative leaders across audio-visual content creation, archival science, arts, and activism. We have seen this approach impact the future of creative work. For example, as a result of the multiplatform, collaborative Caffè Lena History Project that engaged visual, performance and digital artists in its presentation, we were invited to present a 3-part lecture as part of the MDOCS Documentary Studies program at Skidmore College, where the project is now being used as a model for the students’ own projects. It’s extremely satisfying to know that this intergenerational dialogue is happening and that the work – and the creative tree – continues to grow!

(Archivoz) You also mention “culturally responsive storytelling.” Can you unpack that idea for us?

(J.A.) Culturally responsive storytelling is a critical approach to storytelling that engages our capacity to listen, learn from and relate respectfully to people from our own and other cultures. It focuses on the storyteller and an implicit commitment to create for others and ourselves space, representation, and agency over the telling of our own stories. We want to create a world of storytellers working towards diversity, inclusion and representation of the complete human experience in the stories we hear, tell and share.

(Archivoz) Caffè Lena and The Complete Concert by the Sea: what attracts you to projects like these?

(J.A.) All our projects are opportunities to give back to the wider creative community through a deep examination of influential spaces and artists who enhanced artistic genres and social movements, broke social and political barriers, and shaped culture. They are rooted in a spirit of collaboration, innovation, and social responsibility. The results (ASCAP and NAACP Award-winning multimedia presentations featured in the New York Times, People Magazine, Rolling Stone, NPR) served to enhance the value of these cultural institutions and to inspire younger generations through outreach programs with colleges and universities and unique partnerships with cultural organizations like the Library of Congress and the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

(Archivoz) In relation to your Caffè Lena project, you’ve referred to the importance of the small and the local in today’s world of “bigness” (once in the introduction to your book, Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, and again quoting David Amram in a presentation at the Library of Congress). Why is this important? Do you seek to bring this sensibility to all your work?

(J.A.) It is our mission to shine a light on and increase visibility for underrepresented creative voices. To quote in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, “the capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” In a fast-paced world filled with the ever-booming noise of nonstop media content, marginalized stories are often overshadowed. We pay attention to those stories, exploring their meaning and bringing them to the masses. Value exists in unassuming places, and we should not take for granted the smaller moments (and materials) that make up our lives and connect us. By tapping into hidden archives—including simple but impactful letters, photographs, oral histories, and other memorabilia—the multimedia presentation we produced for Caffé Lena supported the venue in raising $2 million for its capital campaign and reach people around the world. Understanding the importance of all narrative elements helps us to unearth the small, simple truths that allow a story to resonate with as many people as possible.

(Archivoz) You were nominated for a Grammy (Best Historical Album) in 2015 for your work on Erroll Garner’s The Complete Concert by the Sea. How did you approach this project? What story/history were you trying to tell?

(J.A.) This was a joint effort between the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, the Magic Shop Studio, the University of Pittsburgh, famed jazz pianist and educator Geri Allen, and Sony Legacy. It reexamined the life and legacy of Erroll Garner and his impact on both cultural and social justice history. It was an honor to work alongside this team of collaborators to uncover and organize Erroll’s hidden archives, create a long-term preservation strategy, and, with contemporary artists like Geri Allen, reimagine his most famous recording in a creative presentation (3-CD box set, LP, website, live performances and educational panels) for today’s audiences.

(Archivoz) How does point of view play into the process of archival storytelling? Can you adequately tell a story without to some extent adopting it as your own?

(J.A.) This is an important question that all storytellers in all mediums should be asking themselves and one that we are constantly examining: WHO is telling stories, and how does the teller’s point of view impact a story’s outcome? Our choice to engage with a story undeniably begins to shape the telling from our vantage point, which demands great sensitivity and awareness to potential institutional and generational social impacts. It is our responsibility to reflect critically on ways to open up space for a variety of perspectives in the telling of stories, so that we are as inclusive, culturally responsible, and socially conscious as possible.

We also actively and continually work to deepen our cultural awareness and sensitivity by engaging with a diverse community of archival storytellers in the field to gain new perspectives and skills. I am proud to be the Consulting Producer on an exciting new Open Archive Initiative for the Alliance for Media Arts + Culture that is creating space to explore this and other issues in our field. The Open Archive Initiative is a global, united ecosystem of thought leaders that will collaboratively address the need for collective voices to strategize best practices for creating impactful community-based preservation and access solutions. Participants include MacArthur, Guggenheim, GRAMMY, EMMY, ASCAP Deems Taylor, and Library of Congress Award-winning archival preservation and storytelling experts from independent, institutional and community-based content creators, cultural organizations, curators, technologists, archivists and documentary producers, to representatives from larger institutional media companies, archives and university libraries.

(Archivoz) Is it possible to tell someone else’s story to/for them, or do you seek to inspire others to tell their own stories for themselves?

(J.A.) There is a global history of those with greatest privilege and access using their power to tell other people’s stories in ways that negatively impact cultural understanding. Taking it as our mission to enhance access to stories and creativity for everyone, we help our clients tell their stories in a way designed to empower and uplift their vision. When representing creative individuals and organizations who are unable to tell their own stories, we utilize a deeply ethnographic, polyvocal approach, researching and integrating stories from community members and contemporary artists, and incorporating educational partnerships to create dialogue. We are inspired by organizations like Museum Detox, a network of BAME museum and heritage professionals at major cultural heritage institutions in the UK. This organization and others like it—such as Museum Hue in the United States—are working to empower diverse curators and storytellers to not only bring hidden stories to light but also to enable ALL voices to engage with and tell those stories, bringing about a more inclusive storytelling culture.

(Archivoz) If you could choose to tell any story in the world, what would it be and why?

(J.A.) I am interested in exploring the stories of creative artists and organizations worldwide. I would love the opportunity to pursue archival storytelling work in countries outside of the United States, to collaborate with international partners and share resources from my own work. If you know of artists or organizations that could benefit from our support, please send me an email at jocelyn(at) You can learn more about our work at Arbo Radiko at

Header image: Photo by Leslie Kahan (Used by permission of Jocelyn Arem)
Image 1: Photo by Sophie Brill (Used by permission of Jocelyn Arem)
Image 2: Composite: Denise Jans (; Josh Woo (; betafuture (


Interview conducted by: Vance Woods

The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers at Oregon State University: A Short History

On April 18, 1986, Dr. Linus Pauling (1901-1994), a world historical figure and the only winner of two unshared Nobel Prizes, formally announced his intention to donate his papers, along with those of his wife, to Oregon State University, his undergraduate alma mater. This was a watershed moment, the successful culmination of an outreach effort that began in the early 1960s, spanning the administrations of three university presidents.

It was also a decision that, from a neutral point of view, made little sense. Though one could understand Pauling’s affection for his university, he was surely aware that the institution was ill-equipped to accept a collection of such magnitude. While OSU at that time had been well-served by a university archives for twenty-five years, the unit was part of OSU’s central administration and, for most of its history, had emphasized administrative support activities including employee background checks and records management work. More importantly, OSU had nowhere to put Pauling’s collection, understood by all parties to be massive. Finally, Oregon State was hardly the only interested party: repositories like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the California Institute of Technology Archives had all expressed strong interest in the materials.

So why did Pauling make this decision? The answer likely has many components. For one Pauling was no stranger to unorthodox thinking and would harbor few qualms about making a decision that might add to his reputation as a maverick. For another, it is indisputable that Oregon Agricultural College – as OSU was known during Pauling’s time – served a critical role in his life by providing a young man of limited means with a route to an advanced education. A romantic point of view suggests that Pauling was persuaded by OSU’s specific request that he deposit the papers of Ava Helen Pauling, his wife of fifty-eight years, alongside his own. Ava Helen had succumbed to stomach cancer in 1981, and for Pauling, an atheist, the idea that his and his wife’s papers might be preserved together was perhaps a means of solidifying their bond in perpetuity. Indeed, Pauling’s request that the collection be titled the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers lends credence to this notion.

It is the author’s belief, however, that Pauling based his decision primarily on OSU’s pledge to dedicate ample resources to the collection. Shortly after Pauling’s 1986 announcement, a Special Collections department was formed within the university’s Kerr Library, with a unit head hired a year later. A modest reading room and storage space were fashioned within the building, and plans were made to expand the entire library. Though Pauling died in 1994, the university leaned on his fame and endorsement to bolster its fundraising efforts. This campaign proved successful: the groundbreaking ceremony for the expanded (and renamed) Valley Library was held in May 1996 and the completed structure was dedicated three years later.

Near the end of Pauling’s life, another decision was made that dramatically impacted the final shape of the collection. Pauling had initially planned to donate only a selection of his papers to OSU. Gradually his eldest son, Linus Pauling Jr., impressed upon his father the need to leave a comprehensive view of his life’s work to future historians, and persuaded him to donate all of his books and papers, rather than a curated subset, to the archive. This decision was formalized in a codicil to Pauling’s will written in September 1993, less than a year before he died.

Between 1986 and 1994, Pauling sent a few thousand items to Corvallis that he judged he would no longer need for his on-going research. Library staff also made multiple trips to his primary home at Big Sur, California to evaluate and collect materials for deposit. After Pauling died, it took about two years to resolve his estate, after which the papers began to make their way to Oregon in greater quantity. Finally, in 1999, the full volume of raw material that would eventually comprise the Pauling Papers came under one roof in the refurbished Valley Library. This moment marked the first time that the Pauling Papers had ever existed as a discrete collection in a single spot, since items had flowed to the library from numerous locations, including Pauling’s multiple residences, the offices of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, and the homes of his four children.

Efforts to arrange and describe the Pauling Papers began in 1987, and a preliminary catalog was published in 1991 to mark Pauling’s ninetieth birthday. In 2006, the completed Pauling Catalogue was published: six volumes in length, the catalogue guides researchers in their use of a collection occupying more than 4,400 linear feet (or 0.8 miles) of shelf space. In addition to the manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and article reprints that one might expect to find in an archival collection, the Pauling Papers also feature the contents of Pauling’s personal safe, his forty-six scientific research notebooks, more than 2,400 scrapbook leaves and 4,800 additional newspaper clippings, as well as beard clippings from the 1930s and a molecular model built out of blue plastic fish. Hundreds of awards are cataloged in the collection as well, including all forty-seven of Pauling’s honorary doctorates and, of course, his two Nobel Prizes, without doubt the most frequently accessed items held in MSS Pauling.

Alongside the cataloging effort, Special Collections also spearheaded an ambitious and multifaceted digitization program, including the publication of contextualized documentary history narratives exploring specific themes of Pauling’s career. The first in this series focused on Pauling’s connection to the “race for DNA” and was launched to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the double helix in February 1953. Later installments examined Pauling’s breakthroughs, and occasional stumbles, in structural chemistry, protein chemistry, and peace work. An additional project explored the scientific war work that Pauling conducted for the U.S. government during World War II. Linus Pauling Day-by-Day mines the papers to document every single day of Pauling’s life from 1930 to 1969, while the Pauling Blog, created in 2008, continues Pauling’s story through new contributions of original research.

In 2011 the Special Collections department and the University Archives merged to form the Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC). This organizational restructuring led to a decrease in emphasis on the Pauling Papers, but the collection continues to loom large over many of the department’s activities. In 2018 components of MSS Pauling were circulated to reading room patrons 338 times, a total that is 80 circulations higher than the next nine most frequently used collections combined. The Pauling web presence – which consists of over 130,000 html pages – accounted for more than 46% of all web traffic recorded within the SCARC domain during that same period. And since 2011, close to 200 presentations on the Pauling Papers have been delivered to outside groups visiting the SCARC facility. One hopes that Dr. Pauling, some thirty-three years later, would learn of this and smile, confident in his understanding that OSU continues to make good on a promise once made to its most distinguished alum.

Header image

Bust of Linus Pauling, Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Valley Library, Oregon State University (courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center)