Opening the Case: Reframing Visitor Engagement with Archive Exhibitions

Peter Lester



Exhibitions of archives can act like windows, providing a glimpse into the wealth of documentary material stored in our repositories and encouraging visitors to find out more. They can provide opportunities for archive services to tell stories, show off their ‘treasures’, and encourage a greater appreciation and understanding of archives themselves. They can encourage visitors to become researchers; to visit the search room and start using the archives to answer their own questions. But can exhibitions themselves be more than just a window into the archive: can we figuratively and literally open the window, lift the case lid, and reframe how the visitor engages with the archive through the medium of exhibition?

This paper will draw on my current PhD research into innovative forms of exhibition, exploring how an archive service can use physical exhibitions as a means to reshape the wider experience of visiting an archive. It will present current research findings around how archive services are utilising new and dynamic ways of exhibiting collections and seeking to transform the physical experience of the archive. Drawing on a wide range of examples from within the UK and further afield, and exploring themes of identity and memory, materiality and sensory forms of engagement, and audience participation and co-production, the paper will frame these diverse forms of engagement within a theoretical construct and will present conclusions relating to potential new landscapes of deeper visitor engagement available to archives.



I am an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Midlands3Cities funded doctoral candidate at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK. My research explores influences on and approaches to archive exhibitions, examining how archivists can develop innovative displays which fully utilise our understanding of the historical and material significance of archives. More broadly it is concerned with how archives can transform the physical visitor experience to offer something dynamic and innovative. I received a Master’s degree in Archives and Records Management from the University of Liverpool in 2003, and my dissertation on online exhibitions was published in the Journal of the Society of Archivists in 2006. I worked at Nottinghamshire Archives until 2015, as Archivist (Public Services) and later Principal Archivist with responsibility for learning and outreach services, records management, electronic services and collections management.