NDACA archivist Alex Cowan finds help (and hope) in history repeating itself...

“Study the past if you would define the future.” - Confucius

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.” - Nietzsche

I am Alex Cowan, the Archivist for NDACA – the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive, a major project run by Shape. We are now continuing our collecting of great deposits that illustrate the great heritage story of the Disability Arts Movement (DAM).

The recent Return to the Workhouse Cabaret at Chats Palace, East London successfully recreated the iconic evenings held there in the 1980s & 90s – events which pioneered a new way of showing and seeing disabled people and disabled radical talent – and was the first time that NDACA had been approached to provide archival materials. We managed to locate several examples of posters, and images of performances and audiences from the old days for Liz Carr, the organiser of this ‘retro’ event, which were used to inform the design and posters for the new event – a great way for heritage to support new and radical Disability Arts initiatives.

The event emphasised the importance which all of our donors, audiences and users have been as I’ve worked on enhancing and developing the NDACA catalogue to accurately reflect the DAM story. The NDACA catalogue can only function properly with fact checked and enhanced records that prove the great disability rights adage that there can be “nothing about us without us.”   

NDACA holds hundreds of photos from the Disability Arts Movement’s previous times; some are identifiable by a featured person or location, but some are not. One fantastic result of the recent exposure of the images we provided is that those who saw them have been able to shed light on additional details for the NDACA catalogue.  Now, as I work at the NDACA catalogue, when I look at a random image from the original Workhouse I now know who’s standing at the back in the audience photo (Ann Pointon) and that Geoff Armstrong supplied the flower print table cloth which was part of the original Workhouse branding.  To continue this onwards, when NDACA Goes Live in 2018 our social media interface means that all users will be able to inform the ongoing enhancement and fact checking of our catalogue.

By bringing people together to celebrate the past and to look to the future, events like Return to the Workhouse Cabaret also help NDACA identify those people who might deposit further material with the Archive in 2017 and beyond, or helps trace more of those all-important mavens (the word maven comes from Hebrew, meaning "one who understands", based on an accumulation of knowledge). This helps tell us who’s (exactly) who and what’s (exactly) what. My thanks again to the encyclopaedic knowledge of Allan Sutherland for identifying the performers in the photo as the Lesbian Sign Song act, Pink Fingers.

Every time NDACA discovers or displays archival material I find this “virtuous” research cycle manifests itself: the Disability Arts Movement community in all its aspects, representations and personalities helps NDACA with our naming in the catalogue and other depositing, and this in turn helps write the NDACA narrative for future generation and insures that what I record in a catalogue record is accurate and true and conveying a great heritage story.


Banner image: The Workhouse Cabaret with Pink Fingers’ sign song in full effect – remember 501s? (C. NDACA/Elspeth Morrison)

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