Thursday, 19 July 2012

Make A Little Go A Long Way

The People’s Record Project - Westminster

Westminster City Archives

Conservator Georgia Vossou shares her story | how to open up access to collections with a limited budget.

I strongly believe that archives play a significant role in local history and for the past seven years I have been the Paper Conservator at Westminster City Archives [see image below] working on projects encouraging community engagement and dispelling the notion that archives are dusty papers stored in a sterile conglomerate of depressive looking buildings. A qualification in Museum Management from Greenwich University and training at MOMA in New York have helped me to see how to use collections as working tools and increase accessibility by developing innovative in–house and outreach projects, exhibitions and workshops.  Face to face interaction with user groups in the community is important in increasing access to the archives so I actively interact with Westminster’s diverse residents encouraging community cohesion.  I’d like to share with you a story of a project that had limited funds but was organised with passion and commitment; The People’s Record Project - Westminster. Various interactive activities brought Westminster’s residents aged 4 to adults together opening up new connections and relationships within the community and engagement with the archives.

Exterior of Westminster City Archives

Opening up access
Three years ago I noticed an open application call for the The People's Record Project, a national scheme funded by Arts Council England but initiated by the now abolished Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.  It was created to showcase and sustain community projects of museums, libraries and archives as part of a comprehensive record of the 2012 Games. The fact that I am Greek was, in my mind, more than sufficient for me to develop a project with a theme such as the Olympic Games based on my country’s cultural heritage and this is how The People’s Record Project - Westminster was born. So, with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old I applied for funding, successfully received a small grant and started a survey asking residents about their opinions of the 2012 Games and their memories of the Olympics in 1948. There were mixed feelings about London hosting the 2012 Games but residents’ memories of the previous Olympics were positive and gave a unique insight into Westminster’s community at the time. These memories and much more are hosted on the People’s Record project website.

Alongside developing the project I was searching the archives for Olympic material and, to my excitement, I discovered hidden gems (the official report of the British Olympic Association and the programmes for the Opening and closing ceremonies of the 1948 Games) that could be used as hands-on objects for community activities [see picture].  Clouds briefly overcast my sunny mood as I realised I would need additional resources to deliver the project, but the clouds vanished as I was successful in getting grants totaling £4,000 from MLA, NADFAS  Westminster and the A G Leventis Foundation.
St Barnabas School Activity

Developing relationships
There were many aims of the project: to open accessibility of our Olympic archives to local communities and inspire learning for all: to increase awareness of the history and values of the Olympic Games encouraging participation in sports: to enhance the profile of the archives, promote our services, and explain to residents how they can learn about their past by visiting us: to foster collaborations and encourage sustainability with new community partners. So, how was I going to deliver projects to hit all of these aims?  I started by identifying the target audiences and planned how to effectively reach them. I made contact with relevant local groups such as primary schools, Youth Clubs, Open Age, Age Concern, Day Centres for older people and Community Centres and arranged consultation sessions to develop the programme according to their needs. The start was rather challenging because in Central London community groups are spoilt for choice but with zeal, commitment and the sacrifice of personal time, I arranged one to one meetings with the different groups, which proved highly successful. New relationships developed and each groups’ commitment to the project was there from the very beginning. As I plunged into delivering the project more community groups and schools became interested and, by word of mouth, new collaborations started.  I’d now like to share with you examples of how, even with a small amount of funding, this project enabled Westminster City Archives to develop new community relationships, intergenerational activities volunteer opportunities, new loans partnerships and my professional skills. The project also created an oral history archive.

New collaborations | new skills
New collaborations involved working with NHS Westminster, Community Access Westminster [see picture], SCOPE and Pursuing Independent Paths (PIP) to deliver different activities: drawing and T-shirt workshops, sports days and teaching photography skills to several disability groups. The objective was to raise aspirations and promote the achievements of the Paralympics.  For me professionally, this has been an amazing and very rewarding experience and I have gained many new skills working on activities designed specifically for people’s individual needs.

Working with groups with people with special needs from Community Access Westminster 

Intergenerational work
A series of intergenerational workshops between elderly residents who attended the 1948 Games and pupils from a local school proved to be of significant importance. The residents shared unique memories with children, inspiring them to create a series of fascinating artwork [see picture]. In addition, after-school families’ workshops were organised and these proved equally successful.

Working in collaboration with Burdett-Coutts primary school
and the kind contribution of the Clarke family

Community outreach
Having built an important network with previous and new partners, I started delivering presentations about the ‘History of the Games’ and assembling art workshops to engage hard-to-reach groups. This included working with Bangladeshi, Arab and Chinese communities [see image] and elderly groups such as Open Age, Age Concern and Day Centres. To maximise the benefits of community cohesion I worked with the Cardinal Hume Centre for Homeless People and with Westminster Arts delivering workshops for older people with mental health issues including dementia.

Delivering an Olympic presentation for the Chinese Community Centre  

Oral history archive
Oral history was the seed of this project and the creation of a new oral history archive was one of its main successes.  I recorded the reminiscences of athletes and viewers at the 1948 Olympic Games and both proved to be a big hit. I contacted the athletes with the help of the British Olympic Association and I managed to contact locals who had watched the 1948 games through advertisements in the Council’s official magazines. A selection of their recollections can be accessed on Westminster Council’s website:

Volunteers | skill sharing and peer learning
From the beginning of this challenging but rewarding journey I had on my side a number of unique individuals who go under the generic term of ’volunteers‘.  This term is far from describing the enthusiasm, skills and experience that these people share. Their behind-the-scenes contribution, working hundreds of hours, helped me to conserve original Olympic material and prepare for the schools workshops [see image]. Without their passion this project would not have been able to progress. I value volunteering as a mutually beneficial activity.  In return for their time and enthusiasm they gained new and interesting skills; learned from each other, enhanced their communication abilities (especially the young volunteers) and built their teamwork confidence, all attractive attributes for a future employer.  As one of our young student volunteers from the United States says: My experience at the Westminster Archives Centre was life changing. I came here at a cross roads in my life and career and found a new direction. I really enjoyed working with Georgia. Her patience and skills are inspirational. My voluntary work at the archives has taught me many invaluable skills that will no doubt be beneficial to me in my future endeavours.’

Volunteers conserving Olympic material

Loans | new partners
To ‘spice up’ the education sessions, two Olympic torches were loaned and used as hands-on objects in conjunction with our archival materials (1948 Olympic Games stamps, the illustrated London News from the 1908 Olympics, etc). The torches loaned were the iconic 1948 Games Olympic Torch loaned from the Lloyds Banking Group Archives [see picture] and the 2004 Greek Olympic torch belonging to the Greek Olympian Emilia Tsoulfa. 

The iconic 1948 Olympic torch was a loan from Lloyds Banking Group Archives.
Photo features 
Cllr Steve Summers and 1948 Olympian Jack Rowling (football team)

The whole project has been such a serendipitous journey. Even in its early stages the project was awarded the ‘Inspire Mark’ from the LOCOG Committee [see image] as an exceptional education project. The project was also selected by ‘Inspire Mark’ as one of the top 10 out of 400 in London in an exhibition in May at the City Hall (GLA).  In addition I have been selected by Inspire Mark as the project leader who has 'gone the extra mile'.

Georgia Vossou holding an Olympic torch
Further dissemination of the project includes monthly reports to Councilors and several Council Committees.  I recently gave a talk at the Collections Trust conference (26 June) and I had very positive feedback from delegates who attended.  They found the project story inspirational and a good case study for their services.  

Tips and Hints | how to make a little go a long way

· Think outside the box: My working experience has taught me flexibility and adaptability. I have always found creative ways to deal with challenges and obstacles and discover funding opportunities.
·    Time: Time was on my side.  The project spanned two years, thus allowing me to reach a high number of participants and focus on their individual needs.   I was able to be flexible and adapt along the way resulting in me being able to offer a high quality learning experience.
·  Overcome barriers: What can you possibly do with £4,000? Well, the answer is, plenty! It just takes initiative, efficiency, good time management and a dash of passion. The project involved 15 invaluable volunteers, 3250 pupils, 1750 adults, and 240 disabled people. It is obvious that by discovering hidden opportunities in funding there are ways of making a little go a very long way.
·  Collaborations: During these hard financial times, encouraging sustainability with new partners takes a lot of confidence, perseverance and dedication, but it is absolutely essential. Be patient - it does actually pay off.  Skill sharing and collaborations does keep interest alive. I am presently planning a number of future projects, to work with already existing partners.  
·    Passion: You have to have a good deal of energy and personal commitment to carry on. What I find most exciting is the possibility of learning new things. There is an incredible amount of knowledge to gain through these projects. When I look back at what we have accomplished I am amazed. I feel I have made a lot of progress, both personally and professionally, in the past two years.

Share offer | I hope you have enjoyed this story and the tips and hints I have shared.  I am offering mentoring session on Share London so if you are interested in starting community engagement projects or involving volunteers in collections care please do contact me.

Author | Georgia Vossou | Conservator, City of Westminster Archives Centre and LMG Member.

Westminster: The People’s Record Project will be presented in a community exhibition in SW1 Gallery from 25 July - 30 August 2012, increasing community cohesion and celebrate the Games.  Please do go along and visit.

Delivering partners | British Olympic Association, Lloyds Banking Group Archives, NHS Westminster, Bangladeshi, Arab and Chinese communities, Open Age, Age Concern and Day Centres for older people in Westminster, Cardinal Hume Centre for homeless people, Westminster Arts, organisations for people with disabilities such as Community Access Westminster, SCOPE and PURSUING INDEPENDENT PATHS, St Andrews Youth Club, Museum Libraries and Archives Council, Arts Council, NADFAS Westminster, Victoria Business Improvement District, SW1 Gallery and 15 primary schools in Westminster area (St Matthews, Hallfield, St Vincent de Paul, St Vincent,  St George Hanover Square, Hampden Gurney, St Barnabas, Burdett-Coutts, St Clements Danes, St Peter's Chippenham Mews, Queens Park, Soho Parish School, St Gabriel, St Mary Magdalene, St Christina).

Individuals | I would like to thank the British Gold Olympian Jonathan Edwards, Paralympian Giles Long and Greek Gold Olympian Emilia Tsoulfa for their contribution to the project, a group of 15 valuable volunteers from Westminster City Archives, Westminster residents and Olympians from the 1948 Games who contributed with their memories.


  1. Only connect, the saying goes. Westminster's Olympics project bodies forth the extent to which people from all sections can join to celebrate a live global event and its antecedents, while at the same time building the basis for continuing engagement with sport and the history of sport.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.