Opening up deSingel’s architecture archives
deSingel, Flanders’ international arts centre, has been organising exhibitions with local and foreign architects, to raise the profile of Flanders’ architectural culture, since the 1980s. The Centre for Flemish Architectural archives (CVAa), which is housed in deSingel’s premises, appreciates the value of this archive for people studying architectural culture in Flanders, so it started collaborating with deSingel to open up its content and make it available online.
- Phase 1: Open up the curators archive. (Completed)
- Phase 2: Digitise photo negatives from photographer Jan Kempenaers. (Completed)
- Phase 3: Open up deSingel’s production archive. (In start-up phase)
deSingel's architecture archives
Context deSingel’s architecture archives Flanders’ international arts centre, deSingel , has played an important role in raising the profile of architectural culture in Flanders since the 1980s, with an architecture programmer from deSingel starting to exhibit local and foreign architects in Antwerp in 1985. Big names from the world of architecture, both national and international, have since appeared alongside younger architectural offices, including: O.M.A./Rem Koolhaas (1985), Luc Deleu (1987), Jonge architecten in België; (1988), Léon Stynen (1990-1991), Jean Nouvel (1991), Homeward. Contemporary architecture in Flanders (1999-2000), Toyo Ito (2000), Xaveer De Geyter Architecten (2001) and B-Architecten (2004).
Lectures, publications and guided tours have been linked to these exhibitions to enhance architectural debate in Flanders. The Flanders Architecture Institute (VAi) was also founded in deSingel in 2002, and still works in deSingel premises to this day. These two organisations work together to co-produce in-house architectural exhibitions and raise the public’s interest further.
The Centre for Flemish Architectural Archives
The Centre for Flemish Architectural Archives The Centre for Flemish Architectural archives (CVAa) , which is the VAi archives department, is also housed at deSingel and is the national cultural heritage expertise centre for environmental design, including architecture, urban planning and construction. It has set up various projects to improve the registration, management, study and unlocking of this heritage.
Opportunities for collaboration
In 2013 the CVAa launched a number of projects, in collaboration with other parties, to look at and showcase Flanders’ architectural history over the last thirty years. This includes projects such as Generation 74 (a study into leading Flemish architects who graduated in 1974) and The Wonder Years exhibition: 30 years of architecture in Flanders, a co-production between the VAi and Knokke-Heist Cultural Centre, which opened on 25 October 2015.
The important role that deSingel has played throughout this period soon became very apparent during the preparations for these projects. The archive that it’s developed to record this heritage could be very significant in reconstructing the story of thirty years of architecture in Flanders. And that’s why the CVAa asked deSingel’s open up this archive – a request which was welcomed very enthusiastically.
Scope determination and planning
The architectura archive is comprised of two main sections:
- The curators archive: comprised of archives curated by deSingel’s architectural programmers – Carolina De Backer, Katrien Vandermarliere and Moritz Kung – this archive is stored in deSingel’s archive cellars, where digital content has been added to analogue over recent years.
- The production archive: produced by deSingel employees responsible for the actual construction of the exhibitions. Part of this archive is still stored as reference material in the production workshop offices, and some of the exhibition items themselves (panels, signs, plinths, etc.) are stored in deSingel’s archive cellar, with others kept at the external depot.
It was initially decided to focus on the curators archive, which includes the most relevant information for the CVAa projects and was the least accessible.
Katrien Vandermarliere, one of deSingel’s architecture curators, was also still working at the VAi, so her expertise could be called upon in the event of any questions. For example, previous conversations with her had indicated it was a well-organised archive with a simple structure (i.e. a series of project dossiers), so it would be relatively quick to describe.
Phase 1: Making the curators archive accessible
It was decided that this project was an excellent opportunity for an internship programme, so an intern from the conservation-restoration course at the University of Antwerp started the assignment under supervision from the CVAa.
The archive was relocated from deSingel’s archive cellar to a VAi/CVAa workspace in three stages, where items were then described and repackaged if necessary, with the intern working closely with CVAa employees to ensure any questions could be answered.
A simple model was used to ensure optimal access to the archive, primarily using details about the productions (exhibitions, lectures, debate evenings, etc.). It had to be possible to search productions by title, date, participating architect(s) and production designer. The productions found could then refer users to relevant archive elements, such as the production dossier or a series of speeches.
An inventory in Excel
This simple model resulted in an Excel file with two tables: one for registering the productions, and one for registering the archive elements. Applicable standards and other agreements were taken into account as much as possible in the Excel information, such as:
- Following the ISAD(G) (General International Standard Archival Description) for defining the elements.
- Noting dates in accordance with the ISO 8601 standard.
- Simple agreements such as consistent separation of multiple values in a single cell with a semicolon. (See the example appendix [in Dutch])
Strictly following these agreements led to a uniform inventory and data that can be easily re-used in other applications in future, such as archive description systems, without any additional processing time.
A traditional inventory
In a final instance, the archive records obtained were described in a traditional inventory. A structure for this traditional inventory could be outlined relatively easily once the series and production dossiers had been identified and described:
- Items relating to deSingel internal operation
- Items relating to deSingel productions
- Production dossiers
- Season 1985/1986
- Season 2009-2010
- Season 1993/1994
- Season 1999/2000
- Study days
- Katrien Vandermarliere other activities
- Items relating to collaborative productions with deSingel
- Study days
- Documentation for prospection
- Documentation about deSingel
- Documentation about architects
- Documentation about architecture
- deSingel Theatre operation
Processing the digital archive
Katrien Vandermarliere indicated that she only had access to a relatively limited amount of digital content in the archive. A deliberate choice was therefore made to process these digital files only after the analogue archive had been tackled. This meant the files in the digital archive, which was less complete, could be migrated faster.
Just like the analogue archive, the digital archive was found to be very well-organised, so dossiers and series could be easily identified. The directory structure didn’t need many changes except for a few streamlining actions, such as renaming files and folders (deleting commas and other punctuation marks) and a clear separation between internal and external tasks.
The files were then packaged in accordance with the bagIt specification. The UGent SIP Creator tool was used for this and to rename the files.
Digital production dossiers were linked to the description in the inventory in Excel, and an extra column was created (see the appendix for an example). A separate description was created for digital files that didn’t have an analogue equivalent.
Online access in the Architecture Archives Database
The final action was to register the archive online in the Architecture Archives Database. The Architecture Archives Database is maintained by the CVAa and includes details about organisations, people, publications, archives and events relating to architecture, urban planning, design and construction. Archives in the database are registered directly in Archiefbank Flanders. (See the tool Registration in Archiefbank Flanders [in Dutch])
Every deSingel production was also entered as a separate event and linked to the new archive information, but also to the information from the relevant architects already registered in the database. This is how the archive is made accessible online to the general public via three routes: the archive itself, the production, and the participating architect.
Findings and results from the first phase
The archive lived up to expectations and was well-organised. This was a huge benefit for describing the archive quickly, within the context of an internship, without lots of prior research.
DeSingel had already taken several previous initiatives to document its history, which was very useful for organising the archive. For example, deSingel kept an online overview of previous architecture exhibitions. Finally, Katrien Vandermarliere was a unique and valuable source of first-hand information.
The inventory gave deSingel and the CVAa a valuable insight into the archive content, so it was easier to better estimate its value and conduct targeted research. Among other things, this was a great help to the CVAa for running the aforementioned projects. The process also made it possible to identify productions that were not included in deSingel’s online overview, which was often the case for small-scale architectural lectures.
The collaboration acted as a springboard for other side projects. For example, deSingel came into contact with photographer Jan Kempenaers via the VAi/CVAa. This well-known photographer had taken pictures of various architecture exhibitions in deSingel and owned a collection of photo negatives from the period 2001 to 2004. DeSingel agreed with Jan Kempenaers to scan the collection for its own use, and in so doing was able to document the exhibitions more completely.
The repackaging of the archive content resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of space available in deSingel’s archive cellar as the archive boxes were filled better.
Wim Lowet (Centre of Flemish Architectural Archives)