cropped IMG 1293

This is the speaker's text, for a paper written for speaking. Images to follow. Because I tend to bolt like a young horse over-fed on oats when in front of a room of people, the text is an essential, and includes emphases to say "jump this fence, don't run through it". Cues are important. In a family ride in the Wyoming Rockies, led by Buffalo Bill's grandson Fred Garlow, and coming in to the home-stretch, when everyone else had gone well ahead and I was alone on a meadow with my horse, I apparently signalled "run to catch up", and then, to both our surprise, "STOP!!", which he did. To his credit, the backflip over his head didn't seem to faze him. Audiences can be like that as well, at their best. But what an incomparable moment of Wooster-like beauty to gaze inverted into the immense brown eyes of a Jeeves-like creature, patient for the next adventure, and so careful of one's dignity that even in re-mounting he lets you feel that to his stablemates, when evening comes, he will speak in low respectful tones of the firmness of the grip on the reins in the graceful arc of flight, and the almost - almost - equine appreciation of the feel of the sweet, strong turf beneath the back, and delight in the gourmet scent of freshly bruised meadow grass.

 

"Creating places of belonging: Reflections on 'Therapeutic living with other people's children' - a transformational experience"

Craig Fees, ARA 2016

 

 

  1. Introduction [SLIDE 1]

 

First, I would like to thank the ARA and the organisers of the conference for making it possible to take part. As a lone archivist working for a small charity I couldn't without the support they give to speakers; and I am grateful to be able to be here today.

 

The conference opened at a level of high intent with a keynote by the Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, and the paper entitled "Who do archives think they are?". The session after this goes back to the existential nature of archives and archivists: democratisation vs. privilege, opener-up vs. gatekeeper; then a panel on working with and documenting under-represented communities. This context shapes the next 18 minutes or so that I have to share reflections from an enterprise that shaked the foundations of an institution and charity, and the lives and work of most of us privileged to be involved in it.

 

Nothing I say is likely to be new to people; and to save time I have distributed around the room the project brochure to give life and colour to the endeavour about which I will be speaking; and inserted into it comments and statistics from the Final Report, to show how, if only in numbers, it outperformed almost all of our expectations: An outcome that flowed from the nature of the project design, and the experiences that informed it.

[SLIDE 2]

  1. The Project, The Institution, The Organisation.

 

The project, "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children: an oral history of residential therapeutic child care" ran for almost two years, 2010-2011, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It focused on five residential communities for children which had closed, and in all but one of which all the children were in care. Former children and staff were part of the project design and implementation on all levels, from concept to delivery. It was designed to bring people into direct communication with their archives, and with one another. [SLIDE 3]

 

It was also designed to incorporate into the life and work of the Archive people who had in the past and sometimes still - or might be expected to encounter or elicit - difficult and sometimes traumatic experiences, dislocations, or general personal and social turbulence; people often under-represented in Archives, with experience generally of exclusion of their experience from the national conversation. The new project team was also tasked with managing, facilitating, and supporting radical changes in the parent charity itself, both in its leadership, and in its nature and future direction. The Archive's task therefore was to engage; to incorporate; to facilitate; to provide effective boundaries within which powerful and deeply personal experiences could be elicited and shared, and a major change within the parent organisation safely managed; and to create a forum to bring together outside volunteers, students and teachers, with former children in care, and people who had worked with them; and to survive.

 

The project design is described in detail in the Final Project Report, which is available on the Net; but I would highlight two things in particular: the essential role of the project team, and the huge amount of talking we did from day one - Time is crucial in a project of this kind; and the central role of the Archive Weekend.

 

Archive Weekends formed the core of this complex archive-based project. We are fortunate in having on-site accommodation and meeting facilities: And used these to create family reunion-style gatherings for each of the five communities the project focused on. These gatherings were often mid-week - they are called "Archive Weekends" for historical reasons - took place over three to five days; were residential; and allowed us to bring together dispersed members of these communities from all over the UK.

 

This solved the practical problem of how to engage widely dispersed people in the essential and potentially costly activities of an HLF-funded project: training; recording oral histories; engaging with archives; carrying out volunteer activities - digitisation, cataloguing, website building. It also enabled former children and staff who had sometimes not seen each other for many years - or who had never met because they came from different generations of their institutions, to meet - share meals and memories, argue, work together, and make discoveries about themselves and their community; and to introduce their own siblings, children, grandchildren, close friends and in one instance parent to the community. It also allowed us to bring outside students and volunteers in.

 

Each of the five communities had at least two Archive Weekends to itself during the project; and by popular demand we invented other events to bring members of the different communities together: Introducing them, in effect, to a wider family they hadn't known existed, extending the communities of belonging. As part of the project a local secondary school had built a performance troupe, and the Performance Archive Weekend we invented stands out because it joyfully incorporated students and teachers as well as the different community members in oral histories, workshops and trainings, leading to comments about "co-production" and a mutual sense of belonging and understanding across generations. Archive Weekends are brief transitional communities of discovery and change.

 

The Archive was created in 1989 to gather, preserve, manage and share the heritage of individuals, organisations and institutions concerned in a democratically-oriented therapeutic approach to living-and-working with people with disrupted and disrupting lives sometimes called "therapeutic communities", found not only in schools and homes for children, but in psychiatric facilities for adults, day centres, prisons, homelessness hostels, geriatric units, addictions - anywhere, in effect, where identity and belonging and establishing them for therapeutic outcomes are fundamental issues.

 

Our parent charity, the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, was founded 50 years ago this year by practitioners in the field who had known and worked with one another from the 1930s, and has been run by practitioners since, broadly speaking to support and raise awareness and understanding of the therapeutic community approach. It was one of the main benefactors of the transformative mechanism of the "Therapeutic Living" project, using it to help negotiate the radical change from a charity culturally, structurally and financially geared to giving grants and support to others, to one actively seeking grants and support; and in the process becoming more outward-directed and less introverted as an organisation.

 

  1. Change / Transition / Transformation

 

Archivists are professionally intimate with change: Change, and maintaining stability and continuity through change, is our medium. We build buildings around standards designed to retard and arrest destructive changes in the materials we hold, and to prevent their even more catastrophic transformation through fire, vermin, mould, theft, magnetic wipe-out and whatever. Change - death, the end of a business cycle, the closure of a factory, people or projects moving on generally - is what brings material to us: Anticipating the probable changes and transformations in the world between now and the future, and what that future will need to understand itself and learn from, is not only the subject of this conference, but forms the basis of Selection and preservation. We are Change natives.

 

The conference theme suggests we may be less comfortable professionally with transformation: Irrevocable changes of state and nature which alter the course of the future: in which one's life, one's understanding of one's self, the daily practice of the institution - is itself changed. That's not surprising. Because it changes what we have known and who we have been, making a stranger of the past and revoking the future we had imagined and prepared ourselves for, Transformation has a potential for danger and for generating anxiety and fear which can itself get in the way of change and send it down dark corridors. There is a special difficulty for people and institutions who are in some way, in that phrase used almost to extinction - "vulnerable". In a time of austerity and Brexit that can almost mean most of us; but it is more fundamentally the case for people whose lives and/or pasts and childhoods are characterised by disruptive change, disorientation, displacement, abuse, trauma, marginalisation. A danger inherent in the prospect of transformation is its capacity to generate hope and expectation, raising the bar for any individual or organisation which appears to make the offer: What was the Goddard Enquiry into Child Abuse shows what a powerful force the hope for transformation can be, and how tumultuously difficult it can be for complex institutions, whose every day business and interests lie elsewhere, to honour and respect, much less meet and manage the legitimate needs and expectations for transformational experience where the need for recognition and change is so deep. The Hillsborough Enquiry, on the other hand, shows that something like it is possible.

 

Archives are not therapeutic communities, and are not designed to incorporate, much less facilitate and manage the complex experiences and needs for transformation of people with disrupted pasts and lives: The chaos we deal in as change natives more typically comes in the form of digital meltdowns and records from outbuildings and backrooms colonised by mice. We can welcome a role in changing people's lives; but only to the extent that it doesn't raise expectations we can't meet, or disrupt or endanger our task as archivists to gather, select, preserve, manage, communicate about and make the raw material of the past available.

 

The proof of concept of the "Therapeutic Living" project is that it is possible. Other presentations today will discuss the need and how it is happens in other settings. The design of the "Therapeutic Living" project was centred on the creation of interwoven structures of communication, creating communities of incorporation and belonging, enabling the Archive Weekends to become transitional spaces, and the Archive proper to become a transitional object for project participants.

 

The term "transitional object" was coined by the influential paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the middle of the last century for a concept originating with his wife, psychiatric social worker Clare Britton. It indicates something, some everyday object perhaps, through which change is mediated: Difficult and complex transformations, such as growing up or becoming part of a community you have felt excluded from - potentially overwhelming transformations taken head-on -, can be successfully negotiated by providing an object of relationship and pre-occupation in the foreground through which the more fundamental change takes place in its own way and time in the background. The Winnicotts' classic example is the teddy bear, that reliable "friend" which makes one feel safe in strange situations, and is a playing-field for imagination and for acting out different games and understandings of the world; until - as in the animated film Toy Story Three, when the college-bound boy, Andy, hands his toys over to the little girl, Bonnie – the need for them is outgrown. Having facilitated one person's transition from childhood into young adulthood, they can now begin their magic work of engaging and becoming tools through which a new generation can explore and discover who they are and who they have the potential to be.

 

Part of the beauty of the Toy Story series is that although the toys as transitional objects are catalysts of change, they are not there to create that change: They are there to be themselves: to be toys and to be played with: It is in Andy himself that the job of growing up takes place. Furthermore, and rather wonderfully from the point of view of an archivist trying to understand the role of Archives in transformation in the lives of others, they are not pure catalysts: What is unchanged is their essential nature as toys, to be used for playful discovery and to help in the serious work of children creating and conducting themselves into the future; the primary task of the archivist isn't changed. But underneath there is a real life going on: fundamentally unchanged, they are nevertheless changed by the children who play with them; the toys have relationships with one another; and in the global world of toys and marketing each birthday and Christmas represents a new crisis, as - into the world of pull-string toys and cowboy dolls - come new and unsettling electronic Buzz Lightyears and beyond. Global futures.

 

  1. New normal: Archive as Transitional Object

 

After the end of the project the Archive lost its additional staff, and life returned to a new normal, with Archive Weekends firmly tried and embedded: There have been some 20 Archive Weekends since the end of the project, and four new communities involved. Those 20 have been driven from outside the Archive, by people who were involved in the project and others they have drawn in.

 

Part of the motivation can be found in comments from participants after project Archive Weekends: A former staff member from a special school said: "I hadn't realised before how our ex-boys, in contributing to this project, can continue to work on their personal development and come to terms with their past stories " While one of those ex-boys spoke of: " A chance to reflect on how my experiences and learning at Shotton influence me now."

 

A former child spoke of laying ghosts to rest; others of speaking about things they'd never spoken of before. One described "A lot of love, feeling of family, friendship and solidarity, feeling that I do have roots after all and these have been honoured by P.E.T.T."

 

And another:

 

"What I'd always searched for, possibly without even knowing it, every time I went back for reunion, suddenly was there with you all at P.E.T.T.. I felt I had regained my roots, my Caldecott family in you all and our togetherness over that weekend."

 

In the present, one of the teachers who took part in the project recently wrote:

 

"The OPC PROJECT has been life-altering and career changing for me, and its influence is still felt (for me) even now. ... Without the project I may never have found the passion for and calling to Inclusion as my main focus as an educator... A calling that now, as I look to Move into headship, has given me a very specific focus on both the type of school to move to but also the type of school I want to lead/create and the kind of students I want to work with and for in the future. I'm so thankful to have been a part of it and STILL excited at how what I have learned is shaping my future and the futures of my students."

 

The Archive and project team did not lay any ghosts to rest or actively change people's lives: People did that themselves. But the project and the project design helped us to create the conditions for transformation, and the archive as a transitional, incorporating, community-building, reasonably safe space for discovery and transformation: both changed by the use made of it, and reliably unchanged.

 

  1. Conclusion.

 

I would like to close with two things: [SLIDE]

 

When I was thinking about concluding this paper my daughter sent a text asking me to share memories of my father, whose plane disappeared flying out of Japan at the beginning of the Cold War. I responded "You have to create conditions for memory...Sacred things require rituals and sacred space."

 

Archives are full of rituals, which people actually cherish: putting on surgical gloves to handle photographs; finishing food and drink and washing hands before entering the archive; volunteer forms; cataloguing rules; the Data Protection Act. These rituals of the archive provide a sense of security, and a gateway of transition between the everyday world, and a different kind of space for transformations in which the apparent contradiction between our everyday pragmatic situations and the demands for communication and demonstration posed by the conference organisers in the conference theme is resolved: Archives, as transitional spaces, are always both global and local, where transformations happen and the future is made.

[SLIDE]

 

Then a series of pictures taking us back earlier this year, to a therapeutic community for children which flourished from 1969 to 1980. The original building, in Kent, has been demolished, and the site is on MOD land; so with their permission we erected a plaque and held an event to which former children and their partners, and children, and former staff came together, to unveil the plaque and explore the grounds. This is the house. [SLIDE] This is digging the hole for the post. [SLIDE] This is the plaque. [SLIDE] And this is what I turned around and saw when I thought the unveiling event was over: the whole group of individuals, with cameras, together, recording a symbol of the place they had lived. So little, in a way; and yet astoundingly so much.