The Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Our Theatre Royal Nottingham: its stories, people and heritage’, which ran from March 2017 to April 2019, was the testbed for our model of citizen scholarship.
The aim of this project was to research and co-curate both a physical archive and a digital archive of the venue’s rich history through public engagement with the local community. Having aimed to recruit 30 volunteers, the enthusiasm for the Theatre Royal in Nottingham meant that in total, 60 volunteers participated in the project and – taking on roles on different aspects of the project programme – were trained to acquire basic research and related technical skills as what we are calling ‘citizen scholars’. This model of ‘citizen scholarship’ involved us providing support for our volunteers in adopting interpretative, contextual and analytical methods, facing potential research challenges, and recognizing different perspectives and approaches in understanding the rich and complex history of the Theatre Royal Nottingham.
In order to identify potential models for researching and sharing the theatre’s history, in 2014 we carried out workshops and interviews to capture the voices and views of theatre users and city residents, as well as a scoping exercise to establish the extent of materials held in local libraries and archives as well as in the theatre building. Following our focus groups, we identified four key themes for a pilot digital project that would allow us to focus our research and energies:
- Building a Theatre: Examining the venue’s development and key characters from the original build in 1865, renovations in 1897 and closure and re-development in 1977.
- The Theatre Royal in Wartime: The role and operation of the theatre from 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945.
- Pantomime: A key fixture in the Theatre Royal’s calendar every year since 1865.
- Onstage and Backstage: From leading actors to local landladies – highlighting individuals and the social history behind the theatre’s heritage.
12 volunteers joined the Oral History team: they undertook three days training with the East Midlands Oral History Archive. The large group meant that interviewers decided to work in pairs: this enabled them to support each other through process, including completion of the formal ethics and information paperwork required by each interview.
15 volunteers joined the Archives team, including one volunteer who had previously worked as an archivist at the University of Nottingham. This group, working to catalogue the archives currently held within the Theatre Royal building, received training in cataloguing, archive handling, digitisation and generation of metadata, and are supported at each weekly session by a paid research student – the project’s only direct employee.
Volunteers were supported to research across the city’s archival resources to identify objects and documents which could be added to the digital platform to illuminate our key themes. Introductory sessions on resources and search strategies were run with Nottingham Local Studies Library and a follow up session with the University of Nottingham’s Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections; initially, the groups met the project co-ordinators on a six-weekly basis to discuss findings and challenges.
10 volunteers joined the Events and Exhibitions team, helping to organise the four main events throughout the two years of the project, each of which is focused on one of the key themes, and liaising with the theme research groups to curate analogue exhibitions in the theatre foyers for those events and for general visitors.
And finally volunteers were recruited to help us to design and develop the digital platform and to upload materials generated by other researchers.
‘Citizen Scholarship has benefits for our volunteers’ personal and professional development. The majority of volunteers selected were those with little to no prior heritage experience, so they would benefit most from the training provided. As trained citizen scholars, our volunteers have grown into confident, skilled, and knowledgeable researchers and archivists.’