Photograph of pin board in showing many examples of photographic work and promotional materials from exhibitions and events

Animating Archives Workshop 3: ARCHIVABLE at the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive

Led by Beth Bramich and Hatty Nestor, this session aimed to introduce PhD researchers to a range of creative and political approaches to working with materials held in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive at ​​Birkbeck, University of London, and included a presentation by archivist Charlene Heath, who oversees the Jo Spence Memorial Archive at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) in Toronto, Canada. 

At Birkbeck University, Patrizia Di Bello, Professor of History and Theory of Photography, works alongside students and colleagues inside and out of the University to look after the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive. The archive is made up of material both from and about the life of British writer, educator, photographer and ‘cultural sniper’ Jo Spence (1934-92), compiled and then generously donated to the History and Theory of Photography Centre at Birkbeck by her former collaborator, Terry Dennett. This collection represents most of the Jo Spence material in London, while the largest repository of Spence’s memorial archive was donated by Dennett to the RIC. 

Charlene Heath’s presentation introduced the workshop participants to her work at the RIC, with particular attention to the process by which Spence and Dennett’s materials have been catalogued and organised. She expanded on her text ‘L’image militante et son institutionnalisation. La Jo Spence Memorial Archive’ (2020) (an English translation of which was circulated to participants ahead of time), which explores how the over one-hundred high-quality colour photocopies, consumer-level digital printouts, and digital files now held at the RIC function as extensions of Spence and Dennett’s radical political project, reflecting how they prioritized dissemination and the rhetoric of their photographic messages over and above all else. 

Patrizia shared with the group the unconventional history of how the materials that make up the Jo Spence Memorial Library came to find a home at Birkbeck, personally reviewing and collecting materials from a residence in London that Spence had shared with Dennett and transporting crates by taxi to the university building. 

Across a large table an archive box has been opened and the photographs, postcards and other printed matter it contained have been laid out and roughly organised.
Materials from the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive sorted and ordered by workshop participants. Photograph: Silvia Bombardini

Drawing on Charlene and Patrizia’s introductions to the complexities of archiving materials relating to the life and work of a cultural and political activist and artist like Jo Spence, the workshop took as its starting point the question: How can we creatively engage with materials that may fall outside of standard definitions of what can be catalogued as an archive?   

Working directly with archive boxes selected from the Memorial Library Archive, participants were encouraged to work in groups to create associative routes through the large quantities of photocopies, print-outs, personal notes, collected magazines and pamphlets held in the collection. With a particular focus on situating items that might fall outside of traditional archiving practices, the groups worked together to discuss and organise the contents of boxes containing in one instance hundreds of loosely grouped photographs and postcards and in another a selection of photographers’ props such as costume jewellery and Barbie dolls. 

It was so inspiring to be able to see—and touch!—objects from the archive. The session was very social, well structured, with good guidance on how to navigate the archives with care but also creativity. It gave us the chance to explore the content of the box and spend time with different kinds of objects.

– Floriane Misslin, workshop participant                 

Two people's hands move photographs on a table on which many different colour and black and white photographs have been laid out.
Workshop participants view and sort photographs from the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive. Photograph: Floriane Misslin

To end the workshop session, the participants were invited to share insights and reflections they had gained while working in groups to sift and sort through the archive boxes. The discussion focused on the different ways they had personally related to the materials and the common themes that developed as they worked together to try to locate the items in terms of Spence’s personal life and practice, wider political and social histories, and to identify what might be considered “authored works” amongst collected ephemera and reference material for Spence and Dennett. Through these conversations emerged ideas for future public displays and dissemination of the archive, including methods to animate Spence’s elusion of neat categorisation or assimilation by the mainstream, and make apparent her multiple and interconnected roles as a writer, educator, photographer and ‘cultural sniper’.


Charlene Heath, ‘L’image militante et son institutionnalisation. La Jo Spence Memorial Archive’, Transbordeur. Photographie histoire société, no. 4, 2020, pp. 104-117. [English translation]

For more information about the Jo Spence Memorial Archive at the Ryerson Image Centre, please visit the dedicated Jo Spence Memorial Archive collection page

For more information about the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive visit the Library Archive page. To arrange access or if you are interested in volunteering to assist in collating materials, please email p.dibello ( 

This workshop was generously funded by CHASE Doctoral Partnership.

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