Tom Jeffreys:

Studying Theories of Archiving, Helping in Communications

For three months in 2015, from April to June, I was embedded in the National Archives of Finland on Rauhankatu in Helsinki, as part of the Mobius fellowship program for visual arts, museum and archive professionals. My office was located high up between two pillars ofthe Archives' grand, nineteenth-century frontage. Through my window I could just see some of the gleaming white sculptures atop Helsinki Cathedral. Below me, thousands upon thousands of documents, boxed or bound, numbered and labelled and stored across some 50 kilometres of shelving deep in the Helsinki bedrock.

This report provides an overview of my aims for the fellowship and my experiences during the three-month period. I focus on two main strands: professional development and communications consultancy.

My central concern as both a writer and curator has been art that crosses over into the sciences or explores our relationship with the environment. But I have also long been extremely interested in the changing nature of museum collections and archives and the role that art can play in that context. Since 2011, I have written about archives, collections, ideas of legacy in art and culture, the effects of digital technology, and public understanding of academic research for a number of different publications. Of particular interest throughout my work has been the tension between the prioritisation of public access and the conservation of valuable or fragile documents. The process and implications of digitisation are central to this interest.

Archives were a central theme in my most recent exhibition Nature Reserves at GV Art Gallery, London (2013). Nature Reserves explored the way that our understanding of nature is influenced by different methods of constructing meaning – across literature, science and the arts – with specific reference to thinking around systems of archiving. Of particular concern was the two-way relationship between knowledge storage (classification, organisation etc.) and knowledge creation, and the tangled effect this has on our changing conceptions ofthe natural world. Nature Reserves was also shot through with ideas around writing, printing and technology, as well as gender, legacy, death, domesticity and the problematic politics of collecting.

The exhibition included work across a rich range of media – photography, printing, sculpture, sound and projection – by 12 contemporary artists, exhibited alongside archival materials from three London-based institutions: UCL Geology Collections, the Grant Museum, and the South London Botanical Institute.

For Nature Reserves I was fortunate to work with both academics and curators at these institutions, but the relationships were limited to a few meetings and a number of conversations over email and phone. The central underlying aim ofthe Mobius fellowship at the National Archives of Finland was therefore to undertake a more involved, lasting, first-hand engagement with the theories and processes of a partner institution.

Another aim of the fellowship was to utilise my professional expertise to help the National Archives of Finland with their communications strategy. As well as my role as an independent critic, I also have strong professional experience working alongside arts institutions -such as the Royal Academy of Arts and Institute of Art and Ideas-to help them get their messages across to the public. From such work, as well as various copywriting and consultancy projects with galleries and PR agencies, I have a detailed understanding of how museums and other institutions can best get across the stories that make them unique. An important aim of the Mobius fellowship was to share this knowledge and expertise with staff at the National Archives of Finland in order to help them with tangible, long-term improvements in their content and communications.

Experiences during Mobius Fellowship

1. Professional development

a) Archiving theory: The National Archives of Finland contains a library dedicated to archival theory and practice. The first part of my fellowship involved research in the library in order to gain an overview of some of the key challenges facing the profession today. Of particular interest are the relationships between archives and power, as well as issues around valuation, resources, national identity, the relationship between written and oral, official and unofficial, location, truth and falsehood, and the future.

Celebrated archive theorist Terry Cook, for example, has emphasised the way in which archives function as active agents in constructing social and historical meaning. Meanwhile, in Refiguring the Archive, Jacques Derrida discusses the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He emphasises the importance of location and argues that it is "impossible to close the archive," since "this future-oriented structure of the archive is precisely what confronts us with a responsibility, an ethical and political responsibility."

b) Archiving in Finland: While many issues around archiving theory are global, different regions have different approaches. The 2004 edition of COMMA – a journal published by the International Council on Archives – examined archiving in the Nordic region, with emphasis both on characteristic approaches shared by its different countries and those areas where theory or practice differ from country to country. Although, in the journal's foreword, Nancy Bartlett describes how archivists in all the Nordic countries share "a preference for the pragmatic and predictable over the philosophical or fashionable," she goes on to note how Swedish and Finnish archival practice differs from the others.

In a subsequent essay in the same publication, Jaana Kilkki describes how, in Finland, there is no distinction between records and archives and no division between records management and archives administration. "In Finland," she writes, "archival fonds are not viewed from present to past, as something that is, they are viewed from present to future, as something that becomes."

Kilkki's observations were reinforced in my mind by conversations with Anne Wilenius, Development Manager at the National Archives of Finland, who emphasised the early role that the Archives play in the "life cycle" of a document and the importance of the external advisory work carried out by the National Archives Service.

c) Guided Tour: On 5th June 2015, I was given the opportunity to host a guided tour round the National Archives building for a group of English-speaking employees of the Nordic Investment Bank. I gave a 30-minute introduction to the history and function of the National Archives before leading the group on an architectural tour of the building itself. In preparation for the tour I was given all the information I needed by development manager, Tomi Ahoranta, and this was a very valuable process in getting to know the organisation's unique history, and in particular the fascinating approach undertaken by the two main architects responsible for how the building looks today: Gustav Nystrom, who designed the original structure in 1890, and Olof Hansson, who was responsible for the extension in 1972. Hansson was also responsible for the renovation of Espoo Cathedral, the oldest building in the region that forms the focus of The Wolf of Espoon Keskus. Further research will be undertaken to draw out the potential links between the two buildings in advance of writing the exhibition essay.

d) Conservation: During my time at the National Archives of Finland, I spent two afternoons in the conservation department with Senior Adviser, Conservation, Titta Lehtola and team. During this time I was able to learn first-hand about many aspects of conservation practice, about which I had previously been unaware, as well as discuss more theoretical aspects of the profession with several members of staff. One issue that especially interested me was decision making in terms of what to conserve and how. Maps and books are carefully conserved and fragile documents are cleaned in order to make the data they contain more accessible to researchers or in preparation for scanning as part of the digitisation process. But the majority of documents are understood as vehicles for data rather than as objects of significance in their own right, and are treated accordingly. It was interesting for me to see what gets relegated in this process – such as the individual histories of the documents themselves. This is one clear way in which the priorities of archives are different to those of museums.

e) Digitisation As part of Tomi's introduction to the National Archives, I learnt a great deal about how digitisation has been implemented here and how this has changed the priorities of the organisation. For example, it took some four years to digitise the first million images; now 800,000 can be digitised in one month. Ten years ago, a map would take five minutes to digitise; now they can be done in seconds.

During my Mobius fellowship, I also spent one morning in the digitisation department with Senior Research Officer Reko Etelavuori. Reko had recently been on a three-month exchange at the National Archives of Australia, so he was able to offer numerous insights into the differences in archiving theory and practice between Finland and Australia.

Digitisation has changed many of the priorities of the National Archives service. For example, users are now encouraged to access documents online and remotely rather than coming into the building itself. Many documents no longer need to be accessed in person.

At the same time, one of the big challenges facing both conservation and digitisation departments is the volume of paper documents coming in to the Archives in the next few decades: an estimated 130 km of shelf space over the next 35 years – at a time when budgets are being tightened across the public sector. The National Archives of Finland are therefore set to start building a new repository in Mikkeli.

2. Communications consultancy

a) Open House: In October 2015, the National Archives are taking part in Open House Helsinki, an initiative that enables members of the public to visit places that are usually not accessible. The National Archives hold regular tours of their Helsinki building but, in this instance, visitors will be given greater access to the underground storage spaces, while the importance ofthe National Archives will be underlined through stories focusing on especially interesting documents and other holdings. Given my experience hosting gallery tours and artist/poet-led walks, I was able to offer some suggestions for the members of staff who will be leading the tours.

b) Online exhibitions: In addition to hosting exhibitions in the gallery space in Helsinki, the National Archives have a strong track record of online exhibitions related to their collections and important moments in Finnish history. While these have been very successful in the past, there is a desire now to be able to create such exhibitions more easily, cost¬efficiently, and in a manner that provides a consistent aesthetic. I was able to provide some help with Wordpress: setting up a new domain, selecting some possible templates, and demonstrating some ways in which the tool could be used by the staff at the National Archives to achieve their objectives within limited budgets.

c) Website redesign: During the time of my Mobius fellowship, the Archives was in the early stages of the process of redesigning its website in order to foreground important parts of the collection and better communicate its role and services. I was able to make some suggestions about how they might improve their current web design and show examples of other comparable organisations and the recent work they have done along similar lines. I discussed some of my previous experience with website redesigns at both a large and small scale in order hopefully to improve the efficiency of the process.

d) Editorial programme: In 2016 the National Archives of Finland celebrates its 200'h anniversary. The new website is scheduled to coincide with this important landmark. I therefore proposed a draft programme of editorial to accompany the new site and to help to position the National Archives more prominently in the eyes of its key audiences, as well as policy¬makers in Finland and the wider exhibition-going public. The aims of the editorial programme are closely aligned with the 2015 Strategy of the National Archives Service of Finland. If it goes ahead, the programme would contribute to the mission and objectives of the Archives, help the organisation to achieve its vision, and contribute to the communication of its values. This has been discussed with members of staff at the National Archives as part of a long-term communications strategy and I hope to be able to continue working with the National Archives in the future in order to help the organisation achieve its communications objectives.


My experience of the Mobius fellowship at the National Archives of Finland was overwhelmingly positive. The three-month fellowship has proved invaluable in developing my professional understanding of the theories and practices of contemporary archiving. It has helped me develop my proposal for an exhibition in Helsinki to the extent that it will now be held in the galleries of the Archives themselves. The fellowship has also provoked ideas for future exhibition concepts, which I hope to return to in the coming years.

I hope that I have been able to help the National Archives with certain aspects of their communications and I very much look forward to continuing to develop the professional relationships formed during the fellowship over the coming months and years.

I would especially like to thank the following staff at the National Archives of Finland for their enthusiasm, expertise, and willingness to take time out of their busy schedules to help me with my many questions about their work: Tomi Ahoranta, Reko Etelavuori, Christina Forssell, Pertti Hakala, Titta Lehtola, Jussi Nuorteva, Marko Oja, Heli Paakkonen, Marie Pelkonen, and Anne Wilenius.

I would also like to thank Dr. Johanna Vakkari, Head of Programme, Arts & Culture at The Finnish Institute in London and all those involved in supporting the Mobius fellowship programme.

About the author

Tom Jeffreys is an independent writer, editor and curator. He writes primarily about contemporary art and is particularly interested in transdisciplinary work or work that explores the relationship between humans and the environment. In November 2013 Tom launched an online magazine, The Learned Pig, which has four main areas of interest: art, thinking, nature, and writing. His texts have also been published in Apollo, New Scientist, The Independent and Monocle among other magazines and newspapers. Tom's most recent exhibition was Nature Reserves at GV Art in 2013, which explored the way that our understanding of nature is influenced by different methods of constructing meaning -across literature, science and the arts -with specific reference to thinking about the archive.