Building the Archive: ‘Behind the Scenes’ of the PMA


Conor McCafferty


Project Manager, Visual Voices of the Prisons Memory Archive
Before joining as Project Manager of the Visual Voices of the PMA in 2019 I imagined that the transfer of recordings to PRONI would be a fairly simple and linear process: first, check we have a recording digitised; note its contents and prepare metadata; ensure the recording matches with the participant’s paperwork; and then send it over.
“Every minute of every recording in the PMA collection has been accounted for.”
That list of steps does indicate the broad outline of the preservation work we have carried out. But it fails to show the level of careful, attentive detail that our team has had to bring to each and every recording – indeed, each minute of each recording – in the PMA collection. Timecoded catalogue descriptions documenting each recording have been prepared with meticulous attention to detail by our project archivists Kate Keane and Annie Russell working alongside the archivists at PRONI. These catalogue descriptions allow a new level of accessibility and searchability for users who view the collection at PRONI; they have also helped us to create extracts of recordings, to make selections for short films and to develop new educational resources.

Our film editors have taken a light touch and sought to retain the character of the original filmed recordings, each one of which has been digitised from DV tape. Even still, most recordings have required some edits to be made, whether for technical, ethical or aesthetic reasons or to ensure data protection and legal compliance. Edits are meant to be legible in PMA recordings; a fade-to-black usually indicates to the viewer that something has been removed. Edits have been carefully carried out by our film technicians Kevin McSorley, Rob Wilkie and Danny Meegan and signed off both in-house by the project team and by our colleagues at PRONI.

Much work has also gone into consulting different stakeholders about the recordings along the way. Each participant has given permission to transfer and has had the option to remove sections they would prefer not to appear (bearing in mind that more than ten years have passed since the recordings were first made). Often, we have had to seek consent from participants’ relatives to be mentioned in the recording. Legal and copyright specialists have helped to resolve challenging issues. Our colleagues at the Public Record Office have advised on archival standards and data protection issues during the cataloguing stage; later, they have signed off each data protection edit as a final crucial step to allow a recording to be transferred. Sometimes there are challenging technical issues to resolve. The recordings were made with minimal crew and during a limited time period on-site at the prisons; technical problems in several hundred hours of footage are inevitable. Thankfully, these have been few, but we have occasionally brought in specialist audio and video support to resolve such issues.

When this more detailed picture of the preservation process is multiplied across more than 150 recordings – some of them lasting several hours individually – the scale of the preservation work involved in the PMA becomes clear. Yet the time spent has resulted, at last, in a properly-preserved audio-visual collection. What distinguishes the PMA in 2020 from where it was in 2016 is that we can now be fully confident of what the collection contains. Every minute of every recording in the collection has been accounted for. These final edited and approved versions of recordings, accompanied by their catalogue descriptions, are what make up the PMA collection at PRONI.
In tandem with this archival and technical work on the recordings, we have faced a small mountain of administrative paperwork. First, we have had to implement a legal framework for our team at Queen’s University to work on the recordings and then for Queen’s to deposit the final completed collection with PRONI. On a case-by-case basis, we have sorted through various agreements and consents signed over the years by individual participants. At the time of filming, over a decade ago now, participants completed an original consent form which indicated some preferences about how the material might be used; but this was before we knew what form the archive would take or where it would be housed; it was before our partnership with PRONI and before the GDPR legislation of 2018, which impacted how we have dealt with data protection issues.

To live up to the PMA’s ethical principle of co-ownership, we have gone back to each participant, or their next-of-kin, and asked them to indicate if they would like to transfer their recording to PRONI, to have that happen immediately or after a moratorium period, whether they want the recording to appear on the new PMA website and whether they are happy for the recording to potentially be used in future education projects or documentaries. Several participants themselves took the initiative in contacting others who were hard to reach, and we are grateful to have had their help in ensuring that an inclusive range of recordings can remain part of the collection.

Without taking these laborious but essential steps to preserve the collection, and without the funding to enable it, the recordings in the PMA would not be accessible by the public and would have had to remain behind closed doors on the “digital shelf” for perhaps another 10, 20, or 50 years.

Preservation has been at the core of our work for the past three and a half years, but it is only one part of what the National Lottery Heritage Fund supported us to deliver. Just as important was our brief to provide access to the recordings and to enable diverse audiences to engage with the PMA. To that end, project staff and participants have presented and discussed aspects of the collection at numerous conferences, workshops and screenings – locally and internationally – over the past few years. With a full project team in place from 2019, we finally had the capacity to reach out to new audiences, including sold out screenings at Armagh Market Place Theatre and Newry and Mourne Museum and a workshop with 60 secondary-level students at PRONI.

The period from April-July 2020 was set to be our busiest, with ten specially themed events planned at venues including Crumlin Road Gaol, the Tower Museum, University of the Arts London, Hillsborough Castle and the Ulster Museum. Without the COVID lockdown, we would have introduced the PMA to many more people at full houses around Northern Ireland. Yet, sad though it was to call off so many events, it is heartening to know that all the planning and preparation has not gone to waste: our Outreach Officer Rosie Hickey has integrated the material intended for these events into our new education resources and a collection of short films, edited by Kevin McSorley and Danny Meegan, all of which appear on the new PMA website. Although our funded project ended in August 2020, it is hoped that planned events might be re-organised in future, as more venues reopen.

As a project team, we have undoubtedly faced many challenges. Preparing the PMA collection has been more time-consuming than anyone anticipated – the adage “it takes as long as it takes” has never been far from our thoughts. There have been moments of heartbreak, when, for example, a participant decides to withdraw their recording: days, sometimes weeks, of preparatory work on those recordings are lost, and the PMA must sadly let go of that person’s story forever. However, as we’ve said each time that it happens (and thankfully, there have only been a few such occasions), we must respect the participant’s wishes. These are, after all, their memories, not ours. At times, having witnessed particularly difficult stories told by our participants, members of our project team have experienced what is known as ‘vicarious trauma’. This has served to remind us that some of the material in a collection like the PMA can lead to pain as well as healing; and that for many people the wounds of the conflict are still raw.

Yet ultimately, all of us feel a sense of pride to have worked on such a unique oral history collection, one of many initiatives that tries to address the history of the conflict. This pride is matched by a responsibility to do the best for the participants who have shared their stories. It is a testament to the range and depth of the PMA collection that each day has presented a fresh challenge for us to face as a team. I feel honoured to have taken over the management of this project from my predecessor Lorraine Dennis in the middle of its journey. It has been my good fortune to spend more than a year working with Cahal, our Project Director, and a team of skilled professionals – Annie, Danny, Gillian, Kate, Kevin, Rachael and Rosie – all of whom have shown remarkable forbearance and good humour throughout. It is a great reward for us to know that the collection will now be preserved for generations to come.