Records of an Archive Intern

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“Where do we start?”

This is an all-encompassing question that is relevant not just in the context of this essay but also frequently visited during my internship at Centre 42 from January to May 2022, working on the Centre 42 Archive of Singapore Theatre (Archive). 

I decided to venture into this internship as part of my final-year thesis data collection and experience exposure towards the roles and significance of theatre archives in Singapore. Assigned to be part of the Archive team (with Eugene and Adelyn), my role mainly consisted of assisting the team with information populating, collateral digitisation and research into any topics that could potentially be explored into creation of content for public engagement. 

Apart from the opening question, the Archive team often asks questions such as “how should this collateral or information be presented in the archive?” or “what information do we mention or omit to provide a comprehensive experience for the archive viewer?”. These questions are made to practise consistency in archival practices across the team whilst ensuring that information made directly available to the archive users will adequately represent what makes up the theatre history of Singapore.

My first interaction with the Archive as an archive intern was the population of Singapore Repertory Theatre’s shows from 2000 to 2019 and The Necessary Stage’s shows from 2001 to 2009. My journey through populating the Archive was initially a steep learning curve; however, a worthwhile one. After committing a good time familiarising myself with the necessary steps and know-hows, I became a more fluent archive intern in the ensuing days. The population and maintenance of the Archive is a never-ending endeavour. The task of inputting information into the Archive’s backend system takes intentional consideration and great consistency to ensure coherency in the archive user experience.

Day in the life of an archive intern at Centre 42

With a warm or cold beverage at hand, the team often meet in person or online to run through tasks and milestones integral to maintaining the digital archive and brainstorm projects complimenting the archive’s expansions. Some discussion topics include Centre 42’s social media content inspired by materials in the existing Archive and The Vault Residency, where artists and collectives are invited to critically revisit local plays and respond to them through their works.

Days become extremely exciting, especially when working with unorganised collaterals. It was essential to do a light peruse of the physical collaterals to gather the missing information that is required. When the collaterals had been sorted into a rough chronological order, I proceeded to research necessary information that ultimately contributes to the narrative of the theatre company's history.

Some collaterals I encountered amidst the information population process may be present with little context and missing staple details such as production date, duration, and even the production synopsis. Hence, I would conduct light research work across other known sources such as the National Archives, National Library, and other theatre company archives would be required to contextualise the collateral within the theatre companies’ or Singapore theatre history. 

When going through the collaterals and research materials, I also explore browsing through general scripts done by the theatre company or playwright to get some context and reference how specific collaterals relate to or represent the productions that may require more information to be included in the online Archive. Once more information emerges through the research process to supplement and provide credibility to the existing physical collaterals, these collaterals are ready to be uploaded and made available on the Centre 42 SG Theatre Archive.

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The makings of a credible Singapore theatre history resource

Despite coming on board as the company’s intern amidst COVID-19 regulations where workplace capacities were still kept to a minimum, the team at Centre 42 continued to have weekly check-in meetings. During the earlier half of my internship from January to March all meetings were kept to ZOOM. Gradually towards May, the Archive team would stagger out in-office days to meet and discuss all archive-pertaining issues in person.

A laptop on a table with the ZOOM app open. Three persons are having a ZOOM meeting.

A ZOOM meeting where Eugene, the Documentation Executive, meets with Adeeb Fazah to discuss having The Second Breakfast Company’s materials on the Archive. 

In-office days are when the actual bulk of physical collateral digitisation are done, and they were precious days. Depending on the depths of preparation work required to be done before digitisation, in-office days are indeed the only times available for the team to contact and interact with physical materials. Some examples of pre-digitisation preparation work I performed include the following and more:

  • arranging and identifying collaterals in their chronological orders, 
  • deciding what gets digitised with the team, 
  • how or in what format should the collaterals be digitised,
  • identifying if any collaterals require post-digitisation treatments (such as getting stitched together, cleaned, colour corrected, etc.).

Upon my onboarding, I was briefed on a dedicated manual for digitising and populating information onto the digital archive. The manual is a constant work in progress due to the ever-changing nature of managing a digital archive; accommodating to technological advancements, and finding improved or new ways of navigating archive population and digitisation. Sometimes, a new set of ready-to-be digitised collaterals could present new challenges in being represented on the Archive, with which whatever solution arises out of that could potentially make it into the manual as a point for future reference.  

Leading on from the above, uploading of digitised collaterals can usually be conducted out of the office and would take up the significant rest of the week. Conducting the preparation personally helped me familiarise myself with the contents for a smoother uploading process. 

The information available on the site or, in general, published by Centre 42 has gone through varying levels of verification from contacting artists, to confirming with researchers, to deliberation with the internal team to ensure its authenticity in presenting ephemera or documentation of productions and theatre-makers. Centre 42 holds high regard for presenting itself as a credible resource for general users of varying backgrounds interested in knowing more about Singapore's theatre history.

Becoming attached

A female-presenting person seated in front of a laptop, looking through a programme booklet.

Christine leafing through the programme for ATRC’s The Mahabharata Part I: The Game of Dice (1995).

The Archive team goes through many artefacts, and occasionally there would be interesting discoveries that they would bring up during weekly meetings. These exciting bits of information would pique the entire team’s interest to learn more about it. While researching the legacy of the Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre (ATRC), the details of the production history and artist credits left me heavily enamoured. Reading through the collaterals while digitising them, I learned about the background behind various productions, from what had inspired artists to embark on ambitious projects, to the community that surrounded and supported the making of the productions. I was enthralled with discovering artists who are currently active in the scene and also worked on these productions in the past.

I would find excitement in the Archive’s ability to shed light on and remember the work of everyone who has contributed to Singapore’s theatre history, especially in the smallest of details that these collaterals would surface. For example, in ATRC’s Siddharta (1997) and The Mahabharata Part I: The Game of Dice (1995), I realised that the Cover Designer for the programmes of both these productions were the same person, Thesus Chan. In fact, he has worked as a Poster Designer for several productions before as well. Even though Thesus has never been credited as anything other than a designer for collaterals, I’m excited by the fact that his work is represented on the Archive; a small but nevertheless significant contribution to the narrative of Singapore’s theatre history that comprises not only of performers, directors, and playwrights, but of all the roles involved in the making of theatre.

As I continued to dive deep into research and explore more of the existing physical collaterals in the Centre 42 office, my fascination with Singapore’s theatre history continues to resonate with every new material I encountered as an Archive Intern. With each material I encountered, I realised how much joy and purpose I find in the process of archive building. As pragmatic as the need and purpose of archives may be, the journey can also get slightly emotional and, at points, intoxicating. It could be an emotional attachment that I have felt towards the materials encountered. Despite my short time with Centre 42 as an Archive intern, spending time on the Archive and with the team taught me the valuable lesson of being intentional during any process and that the sky’s the limit. This is just the beginning of my journey; moving forward I want to encounter more archives and documentation both within the arts and beyond, gaining as much experience as I can with digitisation and building an archive.

Published: 18 January 2023