Every year as September approaches I look forward to Open House London, when normally closed buildings open their doors to the public for free. This year I spent my Saturday down at The National Archives at Kew, somewhere I’d never yet visited.
The National Archives are the official archive and publisher for the UK government and they also care for over 1,000 years of national documents. They are experts and leaders in the information and records management and archive fields, and focus on ensuring the future of physical and digital records.
The National Archives was created in 2003 by combining the Public Record Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission. The building itself was built in 1977 as an additional home for the public records then held at Chancery Lane. The site used to be a World War I hospital, and it was later used by several government departments.
There were a number of activities and talks taking place all day. I went on a Repository Tour, which was a fascinating journey through the document shelves behind the scenes. We saw the carts zooming past the shelves, on their way to pick up books ordered by readers, and saw the lift system that sends requested books down to the reading room. Extra-valuable items can only be viewed in a specially-constructed strongroom, where you’re only allowed out by a member of staff. I also joined a Collection Care Studio tour, which was a fascinating chance to explore the ways in which the NA look after the objects in their collection. These included the protection of fragile or unusual objects with 3D printing technology, iron gall ink and the Naval Knights of Windsor, conservation as part of the digitisation process, care of highly used documents, caring for Terence Cuneo’s war paintings, packing items for loans and collections, wax seals, x-rays and the hunt for arsenic wallpaper samples, and the emergency plan.
Afterwards I attended a couple of talks: The Public Record Office, Kew: Its place in British Architecture of the 1970s and The Changing Face of Kew. I also wandered around the public areas of the building and saw a couple of screenings of films from the archives including excerpts from Blue Peter. There were a few displays of documents about the building of the PRO at Kew and the 40th anniversary of the National Archives at Kew.
Finally I popped into the Keeper’s Gallery, which has a permanent exhibition about the history of the Archives and its most popular holdings, including the Domesday Book. It proved an interesting way to round off my day.
Address: Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU
Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 9-5 (late opening Tues and Thurs)