Cataloguing Animation Collections

Cosgrove Hall Films Archive Manager Rosy Whittemore gives us an overview of approaching the mammoth task of cataloguing a vast animation collection and some practical observations.

A lot of work goes into housing the Cosgrove Hall Films Archive, it’s an interesting process to share because when you say ‘archive’ people imagine a polished, systemised complete store like in museums and galleries. Simply getting to that stage takes a lot of refining and attention to detail and can take years. Since its arrival at Waterside in October 2017, a small team of volunteers has been cataloguing, repacking and maintaining the archive. With initial guidance from Archives+, the team made their way gradually through every box in the store rooms, documenting the contents of each box in excel.

Boxes and more boxes

Drawing up this inventory was exciting, but also quite challenging. Some of the contents within the boxes were in poor condition and without disrupting the order too much we had to assess and create a record of what was in storage. At the earliest possible stage, when cataloguing all boxes in the archive we assigned boxes a category, which helped us to divide up and organise the archive, this was also an important step in defining what the archive consisted of as a whole. Eventually, dividing the archive into 2D (production material and some hand drawn animation) and 3D (puppets, props, set, models) seemed like a comfortable, natural split. This reflected the divide at Cosgrove Hall when it was operating who created both hand drawn and stop motion animation. This split was also logical given the materials, 2D contains a high volume of production material on paper, whereas 3D contains models (a lot of plastics and synthetic materials). Although there were crossovers and exceptions to this divide, this distinction also made sense given the storage spaces we had and allowed us to pay attention to the most vulnerable areas of our collection.

Some parts of the archive were in a very poor condition

Some parts of the archive were in a very poor condition

Each box catalogued was assigned a status (good, fair, poor) which flagged up the areas which needed the most attention. Once we had catalogued every box in the archive we would be able to prioritise the most vulnerable areas and turn our attention to researching materials and finding appropriate storage solutions. We found that a lot of the puppets would need repacking and further attention based on this system. It should be noted at this point, it was important to log all the contents of each box before repacking and implementing any further measures. It was difficult to resist given the state of some of the boxes, however this was the most effective use of our time and making an inventory of everything means that you can assess the collection as a whole. If any boxes were particularly poor, leaving a ‘notes’ cell on the spreadsheet was important to document any movement, keep track of anything you needed to flag or handling notes. On this first inventory it was important to log everything, the refinement would take place later.

As the cataloging process was coming along, we began to research a suitable conservation and collection management approach. We found that although we could rely on available national resources such as the Collections Trust to create a framework which fit in with standard museum and gallery approaches, the materials found within the archive are significantly different from a lot of museum and gallery collections. This is where sharing information, research visits and oral histories have been crucial to building up a vivid picture specific to the animation world, Cosgrove Hall in particular and their techniques. Steve Henderson has been a real asset to the CHFA, championing the importance of establishing animation archives and what we can learn from them. Brian Cosgrove himself has also been wonderful in helping to identify and add detail. For example, after a fruitless search and questioning several people, Brian immediately recognised Superted (pictured below), since some puppets were only featured in pilot episodes, this knowledge has been invaluable. Seeing Brian reminisce about specific shows and characters was a real treat and it has been clear from speaking to Brian Cosgrove Hall wasn’t just business to them, it was a life’s creative work.

Superted, 1975, Stop Frame Productions. Image: Jason Lock

Superted, 1975, Stop Frame Productions. Image: Jason Lock

We managed to identify the source of most of the collection and build up an idea of the range of materials we were dealing with based on visits and an exchange of knowledge and skills. These partnerships and the kindness of individuals has made the process exciting and unexpected. Lecturer, Wind in the Willows enthusiast, and ex Cosgrove animator Richard Haynes kindly catalogued more specific detail covering Wind in the Willows, and is a tremendous resource on the show. Individuals such as Marika Aakala, a PhD student who has been working as a model-maker at Aardman was able to identify some of the more specific examples of materials we came across, as well as Peter Saunders and many others. By identifying these materials within our collection we have been able to construct a basic framework for storing and caring for our assets. Each individual has brought a different range of specialisms and has helped us to build up a vivid picture of Cosgrove Hall, the more interviews, visits and correspondence we have with people the better the picture.

Having a venue on board to support this activity, documenting and cataloguing, has been crucial. Finding a suitable venue is more than just a storage facility, Waterside has provided a home to the collection. Even practically, being able to use the spaces next to the archives to document and decant work means that you’re not causing further damage to the pieces by moving them great distances unnecessarily. The Waterside team has been eager to expand on the venue’s animation offer and work closely with the archive to support and promote it. Working closely alongside the current animation strand at Waterside has been a great way to share the archive whilst the time consuming cataloguing process has been going. Meeting and supporting new animators is a great way to sustain the archive as a valuable resource and hub for the local animation community, and Cosgrove fans.

Finally a special thank you to volunteers and assistants Luca, Amy, Circee, Allison, William, Rachel, Sherry and Weinan for devoting their time within this area of the archive. Thanks to Rachel Dargavel-Leafe who began the process with support from Archives+, Brian Cosgrove, the Waterside Team, Richard Haynes, Richard Evans, Steve Henderson, Westley Wood, Mackinnon & Saunders and many more. As we continue on our journey on this blog I’m keen to share more interviews and insight from individuals who have supported the archive, more detail about materials, repacking and what we have discovered along the way, and as always if you’d like to share your memories about Cosgrove Hall on the blog feel free to get in touch.

Further Reading