Engaging new audiences: more than research

“Fantastic! Beautifully presented, really informative and interactive. Only wish it had been longer!” (Visitor to The National Archives’ Cold War exhibition, 2019)

People are fascinated by history. Whether through non-fiction books, novels, films, TV dramas, documentaries, or biographies, people want to be immersed in stories of the past. Despite this, the vast majority of the population will never visit an archive. Those who do are usually researchers, including academics, authors and family historians.

This is, in part, due to the nature of visiting an archive – they have traditionally been designed for research, rather than as a cultural experience. You usually need to arrive with a broad understanding of what you want to see, and work at a desk in a reading room. This isn’t for everyone, no matter how interested they may be in Henry VIII or the Suffrage movement.

The National Archives has been changing this, through a programme of exhibitions, events and other innovative activities. This provides audiences with new ways of accessing archive materials, curated and presented to guide the visitor, while still allowing audiences to reach their own conclusions. Bringing the past to life through graphics, films, immersive experiences and recreated spaces and events allows people to see, hear and touch history as well as read about it.

The spaces and facilities at Kew are insufficient for this ambitious programme to reach its potential. Significant redevelopment is needed to create a space in which The National Archives can truly become the home of our nation’s stories and provide creative and innovative ways for people to encounter the past.

To be a truly national archive, we need to look beyond Kew. The Trust wants these opportunities to become available to everyone, all around the country, through touring exhibitions and regional events. Working with local archives, museums, galleries and libraries, we want to help take the riches of archival collections out to the nation.