BFI National Film & Television Archive

A world class archive with an extensive, and surprisingly diverse range of material in its collection, sits beyond a humble driveway in a small Hertfordshire town. Due to the sensitive nature of the site and its work the doors can only be opened to the public for one day each year - Heritage Open Day! The festival not only allows the public a rare opportunity to see behind the scenes but it also gives the expert staff the chance to share their work and see its impact on the people who access the collections they have so painstakingly restored and researched.

Narrow corridor in a film archive with high shelving stretching away on either side stacked with film canisters© BFI, Darren Brade - The look of surprise and gasps from people when they enter our film vault make the team smile - most people are not prepared for quite how big it is!

Jo Molyneux, Conservation Centre Coordinator, BFI, Hertfordshire

Why we take part

The Open Day gives the team at the Conservation Centre the opportunity to open its doors for people who are either curious about or interested in film and television heritage. HODs is our only opportunity to let the public in and see the work which goes into preserving and making the BFI Collections accessible.

HODs is an opportunity for staff to share their work and see its impact on the people who enjoy it! / © BFI - Alys Hayes

It also allows some of the team to speak directly to the public. The nature of preservation and restoration work can mean a lot of time behind the scenes so contact with the people who enjoy the fruits of their labour can be minimal. To be able to not only talk about what you do but to find out how people appreciate and enjoy it, is such an important part of the experience.

What we do for HODs

See the specialist skills, technology and vaults preserving the film and TV heritage of the nation. We'll be hosting talks, demos, exhibits and mini-tours, all celebrating the National Collection and those integral to making it a world-class archive. (2022 Event Directory description)

My day job is Conservation Centre Coordinator and whilst I assist with the running of tours for BFI Members and other stakeholders, this is the only public event the Conservation Centre is involved with. The first task in organising it is to put a call out for volunteers and gauge from there what skills and experience these volunteers cover. I will then meet with the team on a regular basis to shape how the day will look and how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and experience. The aesthetic of the event is based around the HODs theme so we try to incorporate that into the marketing, posters and content which we show on the day.

Themed signage helps visitors navigate the complex building / © HODs 2022

Overcoming challenges

One of our main challenges is adjusting the Conservation Centre building to allow for a large number of visitors to move around comfortably and safely. We are not a public facing organisation so the space has to be considered and repurposed to fit in each display and demonstration. We tackle this by extensive use of signage, giving each visitor a site map and having plenty of stewards to show them around!

Working in partnership

Since 2019 a local charity, The Hospice of St Francis, have joined us to provide refreshments and from 2021 a pop-up art shop, Skulls and Robots, have also come on board with a stall of handmade, film related items. They have both fitted in so well and add so much colour to the event, they feel very much part of the BFI family and we can’t imagine the event without them.

Volunteers from the local hospice add extra joy to the day / © BFI - Alys Hayes

The difference it makes

Some of the demonstrations and activities which were designed for the open day have been used for other visits to the Conservation Centre. One example would be the Curatorial Escape Room which we featured for the first time in 2022. This activity involved identifying a title by examining some film material and collating enough information to decide if it would be acquired into the BFI Collection. The feedback showed the Escape Room was a hit and really helped people to understand some of the work undertaken by our Collections Development Team. We have since introduced this activity to our programme for Masters Degree students.

Best bit

I am always humbled by how visitors connect with the work at the Conservation Centre and see the wider importance of preserving screen heritage. Feedback from 2021 noted 79% of visitors understood more clearly the value of preserving film and television which is such a heart-warming response.

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Jo's Top Tip!

The first thing I would say is definitely do it!

The second thing is learn from each event and try to include a visitor survey to gauge how people connect with the event and if they have any suggestions for improvement. Since we started participating in the HODs scheme back in 2015, it has changed and evolved over each year. I feel we get better every time and successful feedback gives you the confidence to try new things and allow the event to evolve.

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