*** Erin Summers interviews Emma Markiewicz, Director of the London Metropolitan Archives, London’s Largest Treasure Trove ***
A short twenty-minute walk from the Barbican, you’ll find the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) just north of Farringdon. Although I used to be quite a regular to their events and exhibitions, I must admit I hadn’t been back since Covid, so I didn’t take much convincing when Emma Markiewicz, Director of the LMA, invited me for a tour of the building.
Can you give our readers a quick overview of what the LMA is?
London Metropolitan Archives is the biggest archive for London and Londoners. At our site in Clerkenwell, a former print works, we care for around 100km of physical records and make them available to anyone who wants to use them. We are the City of London Corporation’s archive, made up of administrative records from the time of the Norman Conquest. The records are from all aspects of London life, and cover maps, plans, photographs, posters, letters, diaries and administrative records relating to the running of London from 1067 up to the present day. We also digitise some of our records so that they can be easily accessed all over the world, for example the London Picture Archive, and some of our film collections.
But it’s not just all about the archives here, what kind of things can we do as visitors?
I have to say, it is all about the archives here! We have a large public study area for anyone who wants to come and look at the records for research purposes, but we are also increasingly finding ways to encourage visitors who want to engage with the records in other ways, such as exhibitions, talks and even palaeography classes. We are always happy to hear from anyone who might have ideas about topics or themes you might be interested in learning about – after all, the archive can find something to say on almost any topic relating to London you care to mention. We also run a lot of very popular sessions with school groups of all ages, and we do a lot of work with community groups all over London.
Can you tell us more about the Archive Study Area? Is anyone welcome to use it?
The archive study area is a large, light filled space where you can look at the documents. Everyone is welcome, and no booking is required. I would recommend checking our opening hours, and if you have a specific document you wish to see, it is easier to book in advance through our website if you can. For anyone looking at original records, we will issue you with a history card before you can use the documents for which we just need one item of photo ID. As every item is a unique and irreplaceable artefact, we have to make sure we provide an additional layer of security to protect the documents in our care.
[You can find the LMA opening times on the City of London website]
I couldn’t get over how big the place was. You took me down a rabbit warren looking at the various storage areas – it blew my mind! Do you have any particular favourites in the vast collection?
I really love the trade cards, which I used in my own personal research when I was studying for a history PhD. LMA has unrivalled collections of business archives, small and large, going back to the seventeenth century. The trade cards are a window into some of the smaller businesses that were operating in London in the eighteenth century. My research took me to some beautifully illustrated examples from hairdressers and wig makers, including one of Richard Arkwright, the famous inventor; a little-known fact about him is that he actually started out in the hair trade.
I’ve seen some really good exhibitions here in the past, and the current Magnificent Maps of London is no exception. Can you share some highlights of it, or some particular favourites?
Thank you, we are very pleased with the reception the maps exhibition has had with our visitors. I think for me, the highlight isn’t particularly about one particular map, but the realisation that maps are such personal documents, and everyone will find something different and unique to their own experiences. We’ve seen people absorbed in the maps, seeking out the places that mean something to them and their lives. Standing in front of an old map that fills an entire wall and seeing how the places you recognise have changed over time is a truly immersive experience.
Is there anything you can share about any upcoming exhibitions in the future?
We are always planning ahead for new exhibitions, so keep a look out for one starting next year on archives featuring Londoners of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage, from the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth century, which will highlight the diversity of London’s history. I am sure we will do something to mark the Coronation as well. One thing you can be sure of is that we will always find something surprising, and something to bring home the power of the archives and the electrifying feeling of interacting with a document or record that really means something to you.
During Lockdown I attended some of the online Book Club meetings, are those still going ahead?
I’m happy to say the virtual book club is very popular and still going ahead! The group is monthly and explores writing (mainly fiction) relating to London from different periods, and from a range of perspectives, with the added bonus of a presentation of material from the archives relating to the chosen book to give an extra, unique context. If you want to find out more do follow our Eventbrite page for dates and times of that and other events coming up.
[You can find the LMA Eventbrite page here]
One of my particular favourites from the tour was your very own box maker! Can you tell us a bit more about it?
We invested in this brilliant piece of kit around 20 years ago to make our own boxes. The boxes are one of the best ways to store records because they add a layer of protection against fire and water damage, and they even create their own microclimate which keeps temperatures stable. We have branched out and offer a bespoke box making service to any organisation that might need it and this has included boxes to keep ballet shoes for the Royal Ballet. I hope that we might also start a service for individuals wishing to keep their own precious family archives safe too – we all have photos, letters and even old scrap books which could probably do with a bit of care and attention.
Looking into the future, what will be the major changes and problems you think that LMA might face?
The big challenge is of course climate change, and how we can ensure our physical and digital carbon footprint is where it needs to be. Again, this is going to involve rethinking areas of archival practice, as well as experimenting with different and more efficient processes and storage. Many archives are moving to a more passive environmental model for storage now, which will benefit their levels of efficiency but would have been unthinkable several years ago. It’s quite a responsibility to ensure the future of the records in our care, which in some cases have already survived centuries of difficult conditions: wars, floods, fires and nibbling by rats.
In common with all archives across the country, we face challenges in managing digital records – how we can safely store and make accessible records which have been created digitally. It’s not just a question of hardware and software obsolescence, but the key principles of archival practice around the selecting and finding material are so different in a digital world. For example, the risk around publishing potentially sensitive material is a very different thing than it was in a pre-internet age. It’s a fascinating challenge and one the archive sector is very committed to resolving.
And if for any reason our Barbican locals can’t visit LMA in person, is there anything on your website?
Yes, we have a lot of great digital records available to search or browse online, the London Picture Archive is a good place to start, or London Metropolitan Archives on Youtube, where we showcase some of our digitised films – including some about the Barbican. If you want to keep up with other (sometimes surprising!) content and events and find out a bit more about how we do things, our Twitter or Instagram @ldnmetarchives are good ones to follow.
[You can find the London Picture Archive page here]
[You can find the London Metropolitan Archives on Youtube here]
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Emma, and absolutely loved the tour! Let’s hope this will inspire more locals to come and explore LMA sometime soon.