No Barriers in action: Supporting ‘Proud Shakespeare’ at SBT

Matilda Ziegler as Olivia and Zoe Waites as Viola / Cesario in Twelfth Night, RSC, 2001 GL3/2/2001/TWE1
© Photograph by Malcolm Davies (copyright SBT)

An early action identified by both Hannah and Jessica, respectively our Phase 1 and Phase 2 trainees, was to consider the barriers to engagement with archives by members of the LGBTQ+ community.  A particular focus was to be how the LGBTQ+ lived experiences (both historic and contemporary) were reflected in the holdings of archive services, how they were described in finding aids and the extent to which LGBTQ+ people knew about and were prepared to engage with archives.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as initial project host, offered its existing ‘Proud Shakespeare’ initiative as a case study for ‘No Barriers’.  Originally developed in 2019 as a commitment by SBT to furthering equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging across its workforce, visitors and services, by 2021, it had become a Collections led activity.  Through guidance from the ‘No Barriers’ project, ‘Proud Shakespeare’ began to focus more directly on LGBTQ+ lived experience, not least in the face of continued homophobic activities and attitudes across society.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust became an online host for the ‘OUTing the Past’ Festival, part of the national LGBTQ+ History month in February 2022.  ‘Proud Shakespeare’ was an integral part of this and benefitted greatly from the support of Jessica Whitfield, the ‘No Barriers’ trainee.

Key weakness

Jess identified a key weakness in the existing ‘Proud Shakespeare’ approach – too much reliance on existing archive practice and not enough focus on contemporary community concerns.  One example was the inclusion in a draft source guide of references that perpetuated a negative stereotype.  Whilst the archivist sought to address one barrier to engagement, by raising the profile of previously overlooked records, they inadvertently introduced a further barrier, by insensitive description in the source guide.  The community insight offered by Jess, enabled this barrier to be avoided.  In engaging with the archive in this way, Jess also highlighted the power of language as an inclusive or excluding tool for archives and ‘Proud Shakespeare’ has benefitted strongly from such input – see section in the attached source guide, shared by SBT and AWM as an indication of inclusive approaches to a common element of archive services.  Many other lessons were learned and these will be incorporated into resources for AWM members.

Resources

Jess is actively working on such resources to benefit colleagues across the sector, including notes on addressing offensive, distressing or misleading language and terms in finding aids, catalogues and collections content.  This links with current developments across the archive sector and we aim to provide resources that assist archivists as they encounter issues in their daily work, as well as collection wide initiatives.

We will be publishing further details in the coming weeks.

Thanks to Shakespeare Birthplace Trus for offering ‘Proud Shakespeare’ as a case study.

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