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Staying alive

Company archives are a rich source of social history, but their existence is threatened when a business fails or is taken over
Archives Social History
In the messy aftermath of the Thomas Cook collapse, it is easy to forget that the 178-year-old travel company was a pioneer in its day.
Over recent years, the firm failed to keep pace with industry trends, and was synonymous with the much-maligned package holiday, but Thomas Cook & Son created modern tourism.
At a time when travel was only for the aristocratic and wealthy, Thomas Cook invented the package holiday, opening up international travel to the masses. Its history is the story of British travel and tourism.
This history is documented by Thomas Cook’s enormous business archive. This unique and varied collection was previously cared for by its long-standing archivist Paul Smith (see box, p24), but it is now with the liquidator. 
When a business goes into liquidation or is taken over, there is a risk the archive will be compromised, says Paul Beard, an archivist at the Warner Textile Archive, in Braintree, Essex. Many archives are either dispersed as a result of liquidation or absorbed into the new company, and do not survive intact.
The Crisis Management Team for Business Archives, which was created by the Business Archives Council to save archives at risk, has been in contact with the Official Receiver and liquidator in a bid to secure the future of the Thomas Cook archive. 
The good news is that while the liquidator is seeking to sell a small number of items from the collection, the aim is to keep the archive together, providing that a new museum or archive can be found to take on responsibility for it.
There are examples of business archives surviving the parent company’s demise. These include the archive for Woolworths, a former stalwart of the high street, is now owned by the University of Reading, and the Bass Brewery collection lives in the National Brewery Centre in Burton-upon-Trent.
The Wedgwood Archive and Art Collection was nearly lost in 2009 following the collapse of the company. It was acquired by the Art Fund, which gifted it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it is now on show at World of Wedgwood in Stoke-on-Trent.
According to Stephanie Decker, a professor of organisation studies at Aston University, it would be ideal if the Thomas Cook collection manages to find a new home at another archive. This would provide the skills and capacity to maintain the collection, while also opening it up to researchers and the wider public.
The London Metropolitan Archives has taken over other archives in the past and, as in the case of Woolworths, many universities have archives that could become a possible new home.
There are also options outside of other archives and repositories. The Bass Brewery collection became disconnected from the brand following a takeover and subsequent break-up of its parent company. An on-site museum housed the archive but, in the years after the acquisition, it lost direction and lacked funding. It was eventually closed in 2008 for two years.
Following the closure, owner Molson Coors looked to disperse the collection and repatriate objects via the local press, a move that caused upset in Burton-on-Town and led to a protest march. It also resulted in some local people creating a steering group.
The group approached Hampshire-based leisure and entertainment company Planning Solutions with a blueprint for transforming the site. Planning Solutions took over the lease and agreed to become a steward of the collection. Budweiser and Molson Coors still own the collection.
Rebranded as the National Brewery Centre, the museum tells the story of Bass but also explores the broader theme of brewing in the UK. The centre, which attracts between 15,000 and 18,000 visitors a year, is supported by a trust, developed from the steering group. It advises the museum on areas such as grant funding.
Generating income
The challenge for the museum is generating enough revenue, says Vanessa Winstone, the collections officer at the National Brewery Centre. It has created a programme of events, such as food and beer pairing and immersive experiences in its new Escape Rooms. It has also launched the Heritage Brewery Company, a microbrewery producing keg and bottled beer, which is a subsidiary of Planning Solutions.
“We do not have the potential to upgrade, on a large scale, our ever-ageing displays,” says Winstone. “Planning Solutions has the expertise to initiate and run a wider variety of ideas than if the museum had to stand alone on its merits.”
The Warner Textile Archive, formerly a part of Braintree-based luxury textile manufacturer Warner & Sons, is also innovating and diversifying to promote its collection and keep the Warner story alive.
Working with a variety of commercial partners on licensing, product development and commissions, the Warner archive has inspired wallpapers, homewares and high-street fashion. It collaborated with fashion chain Oasis in 2016, and is currently working with Surface View, a company that creates bespoke wallpaper, art and prints, and Claremont Furnishing Fabrics. 
“We are always looking to work with other organisations in collaborative ways, and they can come about in a manner of different ways,” says Beard. “Any revenue that we generate is reinvested back into the museum to ensure that we can continue to make our collections accessible.”
Now owned by Braintree District Museum Trust, which acquired the archive in the early 2000s after a series of takeovers, it is housed in a refurbished mill that was once owned by Warner. The Archive Gallery is open every Wednesday and on the first Sunday of each month.
According to Beard, the collection’s strong links with the town of Braintree have played an essential role in keeping Warner’s story alive. “To some extent, there is already an existing and established audience,” he says. 
“Like other museums and archives, one of our main challenges is reaching a new audience that may not have heard of Warner & Sons or the archive.”
To engage new visitors, Warner loans items to museums and galleries, as well as running exhibitions, school education events, group visits and workshops. 
It also runs the Braintree Textile Fair, in collaboration with Braintree Museum. Beard says that the collection events during the fair are some of the most popular, and often attract first-time visitors.
While the future of a corporate collection that outlives its company is precarious, archives that remain inside a company are also under constant pressure. Archivists have to balance a fine line between proving the collection’s value to the company, while also engaging new audiences.
“They need to have an eye on proving their value – it’s a commercial environment,” says Aston University’s Decker. “Getting attention to the value of collections that do not appear mission critical right away often requires creativity.”
Another challenge is that executives often move on quickly, so staying relevant to senior management is an ongoing issue. 
“It makes relationship building difficult,” says Decker. “At Unilever, [the archive] provided reproductions of old advertising for the new chief executive’s office – so it is visibly there.”
The Unilever archive is led by Claire Tunstall, who says its work is multi-faceted. It is part of the marketing team, but also works closely with the legal team, particularly on protecting the company’s intellectual property.
“Alongside our pipeline into the legal team, we work with the global and local brand teams to inspire them, but also on milestones and celebrations,” says Tunstall, who is the head of art, archives and record management at Unilever. “We have teams come in for interactive workshops.”
It also provides a programme of creative activities, including tours around the archive and its 100-piece contemporary art collection. “We want staff to actively engage with us, as it is not a passive collection,” she adds. “Inspiring creativity is so important to us, as a business.”
The archive also deals with enquiries from around the world and handles records management. It is based at Unilever’s Port Sunlight office in Merseyside, and has partnerships with Liverpool John Moore University, the University of Liverpool and National Museums Liverpool. It has also set up an academic circle to help shape its work and look at different uses for the archive.
Striking a balance
“It is always a balance between being available publicly and serving the business,” says Tunstall. “We have to demonstrate how a public partnership can bring value to the business.”
Limited resources, especially in terms of time, are the biggest challenge, according to Tunstall. “We have to pick the things that have the biggest benefit or prioritise what the business needs from us,” she says. “There is a lot of juggling.”
For Maria Sienkiewicz, group archivist at Barclays Bank, the challenge is raising awareness of how diverse its collections are, and how they have relevance beyond both Barclays and banking.
It has loaned items relating to the Stockton and Darlington Railway to Newcastle’s Discovery Museum. Meanwhile, the National Trust has used its record of the Earl of Bristol’s accounts to date purchases of goods at Ickworth House in Suffolk.
“Making the collections relevant draws visitors in,” says Sienkiewicz. “When we were selecting material to digitise for our website, we knew we needed to include our collection of branch photographs.
“Many shots include the surrounding high street, so we have something that will draw people in, regardless of their interest in Barclays Bank. Who doesn’t love an old photo of their local town?”
Meanwhile, this year it also offered guided tours of its strongroom as part of Heritage Open Days. The initiative proved so popular that it ran the tours for two days, rather than just one.
“The beauty of running the event as guided tours was that it allowed us to put everything into context, to explain its significance and engage with our visitors on a very personal level,” says Sienkiewicz.
As uncertainty around the economic and political climates continues, all business archives face a challenging future. For this reason, Unilever’s Tunstall believes it is time for the archive and museum sectors to look at ways to work more closely together.
“There are some professional differences, but we are parallel professions,” she says. “Everyone is working in silos, but closer collaboration would open up new avenues, especially as we all face a challenge on resources.”
For Sienkiewicz, the impact of modern technology on records creates uncertainty about what will be archived in the future. Digital files are “invisible”, making it hard to persuade people of the need to send things to archives. 
“The way in which records are created has fundamentally changed the quality, volume and types of record people create, presenting enormous challenges when coming to appraisal,” says Sienkiewicz.
According to Richard Wiltshire, a member of the Crisis team and a trustee of the Business Archives Council, business records are always at risk. 
“We need to work more closely with company secretaries and chief executives, we need to educate insolvency practitioners, and we need to advocate more,” he says. “And we need more funding – there is never enough.”
Caroline Parry is a freelance writer 
In hot water: Thomas Cook 
When Thomas Cook made its highly regarded archivist Paul Smith redundant in July, the archivist community immediately went on red alert. 
Noted as a particularly rich collection, the archive documents not only trace the evolution of Thomas Cook & Sons from organising domestic train tours to cruises down the Nile, but also the development of modern international tourism. 
It contains a diverse range of material, from the letters and diaries of Victorian travellers and pressed flowers from early Alpine tourists to posters, brochures and photographs, as well as legal documents, receipts and 
passenger lists. 
It is an enormous archive that has been regularly accessed by a wide variety of historians, academics, researchers and authors.
Writing on academic website The Conversation, Stephanie Decker from Aston University, describes the archive as an invaluable resource, not just for the history of tourism, but also as a record of innovation and social change. 
“It’s an unrivalled insight into Britain’s relationship with leisure and travel,” she says.
So when Thomas Cook collapsed in the early hours of 23 September, the Crisis Management Team for Business Archives sprung into action. It immediately put out a call for evidence and support from the archive’s users, but also for interested repositories that could potentially offer it a new home.
Within days, the team had written to The Insolvency Service to discuss a way forward. By mid-October, contact had been established. 
The team has been assured that the archives are secure and not going anywhere for the time being.
“Half the battle can be getting in touch with the liquidator,” says Richard Wiltshire, a member of the Crisis Management Team for Business Archives. “Often we won’t hear back, and then we find the archive has already gone.”
The crisis management team hopes to prevent the archive being sold and broken up. And recently, the liquidator indicated that while it is seeking to sell a small number of items from the collection, the overall aim is to keep the archive together, providing that a new museum or archive can be found to take on responsibility for it.

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