To give you some starting stats: the Art History & Visual Studies slide collection consists of approximately 55 slide cabinets containing approximately 160, 000 slides.
Currently underused and (very nearly) obsolete due to ‘technology updates’, the department has been wrangling over what to do with the slide collection for some years – coming to a head in the past 6 months or so. Of course we are all lining ourselves up on one side or another of the debate. The AHVS & Archaeology library, the current location for the collection, requires urgent refurbishment, and there is a desperate lack of study space. In our former building the slide collection was housed in its own room, but now the slide cabinets are taking up vital study areas. Given the slides are, for the large part, not used within teaching perhaps it is time we dispose of such a large and cumbersome – and some would argue, unnecessary – object. After all, we have ‘Google’ and various online portals which offer digitised imagery. This is one side of the argument.
However, the opposing argument is one which applies to all gallery, museum, library, and university collections: the majority of the content contained within any collection generally lays unused until some form of intervention – an exhibition, an education project, a lone and wandering researcher, an artist or writer. 99% of the Manchester Museum’s collection remains in storage – this is the nature of the ‘collection’ and ‘archive’ beast. There is simply never enough space nor methods by which to exhibit all items and ephemera. There are various circling debates surrounding ‘access’ to such hidden materials.
To argue, then, that an archive is obsolete or unnecessary simply because it is not in permanent use seems rather short sighted. What, exactly, is a collection or archive for? How best can they be put into use?
The AHVS slide collection has been built up over a 15-20 year period by existing and emeritus staff. Many of the slides archive objects, artworks, spaces, architecture and exhibitions which cannot be found through a general online ‘Google’ search, nor are they likely to be found in easy-to-hand publications. Granted, other slides are simply reproductions of images taken from books prior to the availability of digitised imagery.
To my mind the slide collection presents a new learning opportunity. Google and other such portals are only as helpful as the prior knowledge typed into the search engine box; an archive or collection offers new topics, themes, images which students and researchers may never have considered. Plus, the very nature of image capturing does have its own history – the slide collection is part of the history of AHVS methods and research, something which students may never be made aware of if we choose to substitute all ‘old’ technologies with ‘new’ technologies simply because it saves a few square foot of space.
So, I’ve thrown a spanner into the works – as a researcher and writer I’ve argued I don’t want to see the slide collection dismantled and thrown into the skip. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t sentimental materiality. I will have to identify those slides which may no longer be of use (whatever that term comes to mean).