Doctor Who and the Case of the Surprisingly Engaging Archive

Museums, galleries, and heritage spaces are fantastically adept at sharing their collections with visitors and audiences; our sector’s professionals will make use of every angle to spark interest and curiosity in displays. Everyone, however, has stories of the frustrated visitor and enthusiast who wants to see what isn’t on display as well as what is.

In our work we’ve found film to be a fantastic way of showing visitors and interested audiences what goes on behind the scenes at a museum, gallery, or archive, and to reveal the details of collections which, for whatever reason (often financial, sometimes logistical), aren’t on display or easily accessible. Importantly, this behind the scenes access isn’t just the preserve of Frederick Wiseman and feature documentaries.

A recent project we collaborated on illustrates this point; we think it shows how film can be used to reach audiences well beyond an institution’s doorstep. We were tasked, in 2017, to make a film about the Delia Derbyshire archive at The John Rylands Library in Manchester. The collection consists of papers, objects and recordings (both from her childhood and her work as an electronic music composer at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop).

Derbyshire arranged the original theme music to the BBC’s Dr Who in the 1960s. Given that connection to one of the BBC’s hottest properties, the Ryland’s collection sustains a lot of interest. We decided to use the film to invite the viewer on a behind-the-scenes tour, taking in the archive’s physical structure, and showing what it consists of. As a means to tell more about Delia’s career, the film also informs its viewers how they can access the material themselves at the Library.

One thing other institutions, or museum professionals, may be interested to note about this project is the audience that this film found. In November 2017 the film was picked up and embedded in an article about Delia Derbyshire written by BBC America. Following this the film received considerable attention in the United States and has now been watched more times outside than inside the UK.

As a way of making the archive visible, sharing its contents to new audiences – and, crucially, to audiences who do not currently engage with the Library – we think film was a great choice. We love making this type of film; for us there’s nothing more exciting than filming archive in its natural habitat! Nothing more exciting, that is, apart from fulfilling our company’s mission to help organisations share their collections more widely.

This is the type of film that can really work for an institution, to shed light on material too expensive or fragile to bring out into public; that simply doesn’t fit with existing interpretation strategies; or, like the Delia Derbyshire archive, has a public interest that a medium like film can help to satisfy!

What archive, painting, object, or collection do you have in your collection that could have a surprisingly engaging effect?