Session 4.7 - New ways of thinking about archival space and the design of archive buildings


Peter Lester, Odile Welfelé

Date Added:

24 October 2019

Chair: Tim Harris, Assistant Director, London Metropolitan Archives



a. Archival Space: Towards User-Centred Design, by Peter Lester

The space of the archive has been variously described as a site of political power; a symbol of archival authority; a temple; a prison.  In each of these readings, the archive is conceived as a mental abstraction; the user reduced to a passive form devoid of agency.  As Henri Lefebvre reminds us, space is not neutral but, in fact, the product of social and political processes: space is shaped through and in turn shapes human interaction.  Through the notion of ‘lived’ space, Lefebvre seeks to introduce the experience and sociality of the user into an understanding of space.
In this presentation I will draw on Lefebvre’s theory of space to consider the socio-political processes around the making of archival space and how a turn towards user-centred design can fundamentally shift the nature of what an archive can be.  I will use the example of Archives+, a partnership of archive services in Manchester, UK, as a case study of a reformulated archive space.  Here, an archive exhibition and interpretation space provides a primary means of access for visitors, in which notions of place, community and identity are privileged.  Underpinning the development of Archives+ is a user-centred design incorporating consultation processes and a turn towards user-generated content.  This design process focuses on how visitors themselves want to use archives, rather than a preconceived idea of what archival use should be: in other words, a turn from what the archive does, to thinking about what it is for. In this sense the archive shifts from a site of authority to a space that is more fluid, polyvocal and pluralist.


Peter Lester is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Midlands3Cities funded doctoral candidate at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK. His research explores the exhibition and display of archives and, more broadly, how archives conceive of and design the physical visitor experience. He received a Master's degree in Archives and Records Management at the University of Liverpool in 2003 and worked at Nottinghamshire Archives, UK, until 2015 as Archivist (Public Services) and later Principal Archivist with responsibility for learning and outreach services, records management, electronic services and collections management.


c. Archives Buildings - witnesses of the past and bridges to modernity,, by Odile Welfelé

In the 20th century, historical archives were often kept in buildings whose initial function was not to serve as deposit. Even purpose-built archival buildings become outdated. The amount of archived records has increased enormously. New challenges and new technologies arose and needed new answers. But should the old buildings be emptied of everything? Not necessarily. With examples from around the world, we will explore the issue of past versus modernity.


Odile Welfelé is a trained Archivist and Senior Heritage Curator, currently working as Policy Officer in Archives of France for the International Cooperation.