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What is an archivist? Why would a performing arts centre need an archivist? How do you become one? Take a peek behind the scenes with Esplanade's archivist to find out more, before putting your knowledge to the test in a quiz!
She is a manager in the archives team at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
To describe it simply, an archivist preserves important memories for future reference. When Wei Lian archives something, it can involve choosing what to preserve, organising what is preserved, and making what is preserved easily accessible.
This is where people drop off items such as hard disk drives and CDs of video recordings, photos and posters for Wei Lian to archive. After Wei Lian collects it, it’s her job to make sure they are organised and stored neatly and safely.
This is a special storage system that filters the air within to keep it clean and free from dust. It even uses ultraviolet light to help prevent growth of unwanted microorganisms that might affect the items inside!
What’s inside? Various kinds of media storage, and many of them are from before digital media became commonplace!
It used to be that Wei Lian had to physically label the tape with details such as the event name, date and time before she keeps it in the physical archive. Each tape also has its own serial number. Why? Because sometimes there is more than one copy of the same tape (just like when you find many copies of the same book at the library) and that can get confusing. Each tape having their own serial number tells us that they are unique items.
But video tapes are very rare these days because practically all video recording is done digitally. Now, Wei Lian just has to make sure everything is preserved properly in the physical archive.
So how does Wei Lian archive a video recording these days? Read on!
There’s no need for a physical storage space anymore! The video recording of a performance gets digitally archived and stored in a special programme in a computer. Here, Wei Lian can label the recording with even more details such as the names of the artists and crew that were involved in this performance.
With this digital archive, Wei Lian doesn’t have to access the physical archive as often as before!
The digital copy of the poster gets stored in the digital archive. And the physical poster itself? Wei Lian carefully slots each poster in its own plastic sleeve to keep it safe and clean, and then it’s kept away in a poster storage bag to be preserved safely!
Q: What skills do you need to be an archivist?
Wei Lian: You need really good organising skills and a keen eye for detail to be an archivist. You have to be able to group things sensibly so that others can find them easily! You also have to keep up with the latest archiving technologies. An interest in the arts helps too!
Q: What do I need to study to be an archivist?
Wei Lian: You usually need a master’s degree in Information Studies. An additional bachelor’s degree in a subject you are passionate about can also help. For example, I have a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art so that helps my work in Esplanade.
Q: Who uses the Esplanade Archive?
Wei Lian: Who uses the archive? I get many requests from my colleagues at Esplanade who want to see past performances, and also from artists who have performed here, and even students and researchers. So, having a passion for customer service is useful too because ultimately, an archive is something that anyone can use.
Q: Why does Esplanade have an archive?
Wei Lian: We have thousands of performances every year and without an archive, there would be no way of seeing them again. Esplanade is the national performing arts centre, so it’s important for us to preserve these memories that form a significant part of Singapore’s arts history.
Q: What’s your most memorable moment at work?
Wei Lian: It has to be when I just started working as an archivist at Esplanade and I was shown the physical archive where we keep lots of posters, audio and video tapes, CDs and DVDs!
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Autographed pointe shoes by American Ballet Theatre's ballet dancers, Sarah Lane (left) and Misty Copeland (right).
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An autographed Misty Copeland Barbie doll. Misty Copeland is the first African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.
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A slide film of a scene from Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress in 2002. It was the first musical to grace the Esplanade Theatre stage as part of the centre's opening festival.
Now that you know a little more about what it takes to be an archivist at a performing arts centre, do you think you have what it takes to be one?
Curious to find out more about the Esplanade Archives? Check out Offstage Researchers!
Backstage Pass: Archivist is the first in a regular series featuring interesting jobs in the arts. Stay tuned for more!