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Engaging the public with archive collections

5 January 2009

Engaging the public with archive collections - the North West Film Archive wins a public vote – and £10,000 – to take BBC programmes back to the Manchester communities they portray

A unique collection of BBC North West regional news and television features from the 1960 - 80s is the focus of an innovative public access scheme at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), as Marion Hewitt – Director of the North West Film Archive (NWFA) – explains.

As part of MMU with a public regional remit, the NWFA - one of the UK’s largest public film collections - is perfectly placed to develop the community partnerships which make real and positive connections with people outside the University. This work is already at the heart of the core activity to locate, preserve and make available moving images made in or about the North West of England.

MMU is part of the Beacon for Public Engagement scheme - the biggest initiative ever launched to bridge the gap between Higher Education and the public. A competition was announced for University staff, designed to encourage genuine two-way engagement with external community partners. Making academic research and expertise relevant to the real world outside the ‘ivory towers’ has always presented a challenge to the Higher Education sector, and MMU is fully committed to demonstrating that its values align with the requirements of the city and region in which it is rooted. Offering some serious cash and a simple process, applications were invited for six Public Engagement Fellowships (PEF) – with a grant of £10,000 each - and nearly 50 applications were submitted. 12 were shortlisted by a panel of MMU and community representatives and the competition then went to a public vote – supporters worldwide brought us more than half of the all the votes cast in our round, securing one of the Fellowships for the proposed scheme. (Thank you all who voted! And see the six winning schemes here www.mmu.ac.uk/fellowship )

The project will undertake an inter-generational exploration of life in Hulme and Moss Side in the 1960-80s through contemporary BBC North West regional television news and features which have been part of the holdings for over 20 years. This unique 16mm film collection was rescued from disposal (in very different times) and finally conserved and catalogued during a three year project in partnership with BBC I&A, and funded by a £210,636 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Completed in March 2008, 220 hours were transferred to digital access copies, and 16,000 catalogue records went online, with around five hours of sample clips. (www.nwfa.mmu.ac.uk:591/bbc/default.htm)

The collections richly represent how people in the North West lived, worked and enjoyed precious leisure time, but this visual record has not fully represented the region’s evolving diversities, particularly after immigration from the Caribbean and Asia from the 1940s. The PEF project can now help to close that gap and reconnect regional television series like Long Live Our England (1972) with the communities portrayed.

Working with the History Department, and Troubadour Foundation, the NWFA would take material into schools and other venues in the Hulme and Moss Side areas of Manchester, aiming to stimulate inter-generational work and encourage contemporary image-making and story-sharing. Troubadour – a new company set up by Karen Gabay, a BBC radio broadcaster and producer of acclaimed music documentaries – has unique combined expertise in production and community relations, strengthening this opportunity to bring generations together in developing historical understanding and meanings that will have personal, regional and wider significance. A short film for DVD distribution, and a podcast, will be produced by Karen using archive and new material, alongside screenings, workshops, and community news. The project is anticipated to take six months and will be completed during 2009.