Is a physical archive of images, occupying an entire room, an asset or an irritation for an art school? Are slides – some with plastic frames and typed labels, others in cardboard cases with handwritten descriptions – outdated technology and a waste of space, or historical objects in need of preservation, curation and exploration?
For the under threat Visual Resource Centre at Manchester School of Art – a vast collection of teaching slides dating back to the 1960s – these are important and increasingly urgent questions. Questions that are, in part at least, being answered by the recently launched Adopt a Slide website.
Initiated by MA and PhD students at Manchester Metropolitan University (which Manchester School of Art is part of) and conceived as a participatory art project, this small but significant gesture is using the digital space to highlight the continued importance and relevance of this archive of an estimated 300,000 slides.
There is no paradox here, no contradiction; as artists are increasingly showing through their crisscrossing between ‘traditional’ and digital materials and tools, the relationship between online and off, digital and analogue, is not a question of either/or. Instead, it is one of appropriateness, of suitability – of what feels right in a particular context.
Sometimes, being able to hold an object, to turn it over in your hand and see and feel its history, adds another layer of experience and understanding. Sometimes, to spend time opening filing cabinet drawers and flicking through hanging files and plastic folders, is a more rewarding and enlightening experience than searching a digital database. Not better, just different.
You might think that it would be in the DNA of an art school to recognise the innate value of the physical object, that it would have a nuanced approach to the digital archiving of images.
Perhaps you would expect an institution dedicated to, in large part, the creation of objects – through design, fashion, fine art, architecture and more – to understand that an archive such as this is about more than the images it contains. To realise that the objects themselves represent an accumulation of meaning and history; that the story the archive tells is as much about the institution that created it, as it is the individual slides within it.
On first glance the Visual Resource Centre is not much to look at all. It’s in a small room off a corridor in the art school’s Victorian Grosvenor Building. Grey filing cabinets line the walls and a mish-mash of files, cardboard boxes and books sit on rather flimsy-looking shelves.
In one corner there’s a desk with a computer and phone; it belongs to sole archivist John Davis. There are light boxes for viewing images, some old slide projectors that don’t work anymore, a camera set up for taking pictures for the Adopt a Slide project. And on my visit, a small group of students looking through the archive, searching for stories to share.
It’s a relatively small space for over 50 years of history, although considerably more than will be taken up if the plans to break up the archive are carried through. Not all of the slides will be lost. Those documenting students’ work will be kept along with other original photographs. But much will go, and a designated historical resource will be disbanded. And of course, there will be no job for a Visual Resource Centre archivist anymore.
Maybe, then, now is the time to adopt a slide from this large and sprawling historical collection.
Visit pickaslide.wordpress.com to find out more about the Adopt a Slide project