Innovative Practice in Living Archives, Digital Creativity and Music Making

Every arts organisation founded in the analogue era has to find its digital purpose, making the most of the opportunities to increase reach and depth of engagement. Britten Pears Arts want to develop a pioneering digital interface for projects, creators and specialists that makes use of the sharing and collaborative culture they are developing at their Creative Campus.


Britten Pears Arts (BPA) is a leading international centre of music, with musicians working on site throughout the year to create new work and develop new skills. Based on the Suffolk coast at two popular, historic visitor destinations: The Red House and Snape Maltings, the charity emerged from the creative partnership of Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and his professional and personal partner, singer Peter Pears.

Its Learning & Inclusion programme runs projects aimed at improving lives, building communities and improving wellbeing using creativity as the central element. Over the next 5-10 years BPA is embarking on an ambitious programme of site development to expand its Creative Campus. The expansion of the Creative Campus will enable a step-change in the number of projects taking place concurrently on site.

In order to facilitate and encourage this exchange of ideas, BPA intend to develop a pioneering digital interface for projects, creators and specialists that makes use of the sharing and collaborative culture they are developing at the Creative Campus. This approach to making ideas accessible to a global audience is particularly important for BPA due to the rural nature of its location. The digital interface should enable Snape Maltings and the artists and specialists it works with to connect with global practitioners and audiences, delivering a major impact on its reach, visibility and increasing the potential of the projects to make change.


The Challenge


Every arts organisation founded in the analogue era has to find its digital purpose, making the most of the opportunities to increase reach and depth of engagement. This has come most clearly into focus in 2020 as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the tipping point for digital as an essential medium rather than an optional extra has already passed. Before seeking further funding for the development stage, Snape Maltings wanted to understand more about how artists will engage with the interface, which technologies could be implicated, and how they could engage with their audience. EIRA R&D grant funding has enabled Prof George McKay and the project-funded Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr Ross Cole , to carry out research to understand the current market for digital interfaces in the arts, and to understand in general how artists would like to engage with such an interface.

The report generated from this project will be used to guide the next phase of development by making clear the areas on which to focus, particularly on how artists from across the globe could engage with their work.


The Approach


Prof George McKay joined UEA as Professor of Media Studies in 2014. Previously he was Professor of Cultural Studies at MediaCityUK University of Salford (2005-14), and at UCLan (2000-05). He has a First Class BA (Hons) from Hull College of Higher Education (1984) and a PhD from the University of Glasgow (1992).

He was Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Leadership Fellow for its Connected Communities Programme (2012-19). As well as co-leading the programme, with over 350 funded projects and 1000 community partners, his Connected Communities projects at UEA included The Impact of Festivals in collaboration with research partner EFG London Jazz Festival, Participatory Arts and DIY Culture, the Reggae Research Network, and Creative Spaces and Public Culture.

He was co-investigator (2015-17) on the EU Heritage+ project, Cultural Heritage and Improvised Music in European Festivals (CHIME).

The project with BPA used a mixed-method approach involving three main areas of activity. Firstly, a horizon scan of current online platforms was pursued in consultation with BPA. Secondly, a critical literature review of the fields of performance documentation, digital archiving, and audience engagement was undertaken. Next, a series of targeted interviews with stakeholders across the UK arts sector took place. Finally, a draft of this report was read, revised, and agreed with BPA.

To orientate the project’s aims and scope, the academic team focused on three questions:

1. How do arts organisations in the UK use digital technology to cultivate interaction among artists and encourage the documentation of work?

2. Which approaches to digital dissemination and creative interaction work best to foster audience engagement online in the 21st century?

3. How do UK arts organisations deal with work in progress and intellectual property rights in a contemporary online environment?


The Outcome


The final report took an in depth look at how a set of arts organisations used their digital platform and explored the divergence between an ideal vision of audience engagement, based on a living archive model and also the pragmatics of an online sphere dominated by major tech corporations and social media platforms. The report considered these factors and examined how arts organisations are balancing these issues in effective ways.

Shoel Stadlen, Head of Communications, Britten Pears Arts said:

“For Britten Pears Arts, the motivation to partner in this EIRA R&D project has been to explore the horizon of similar initiatives and define ways to develop our digital documentation further. The Digital Campus is rapidly becoming a rich living archive, which we hope will interest a number of different groups: our project participants present, past and future; people working in similar areas of practice around the world; and a broader, non-professional audience too. We are highly interested in the extent to which we can build digitally on the communities created around each project and the creative ‘collisions’ that occur when residencies on the physical site overlap.

Before committing to further investment in digital and online infrastructure, we want to learn from what other organisations are doing and ensure that our future plans are rooted in best practice recommendations. We also, in collaboration with the University of East Anglia, want to share our findings with the sector as a whole.”

Prof George McKay said about the project:

“It was such a rewarding experience to work with a leading music and performing arts organisation like Britten Pears Arts and Dr Ross Cole on this project. We hope that the report helps inform future strategy, design and practice of the Creative Campus development, for both visiting artists and Britten Pears Arts producers. The other thing both Dr Cole and I were struck by was the timeliness and relevance of a critical interrogation of digital arts making and dissemination during the pandemic, when everyone—artists, producers, venues, audiences—was looking afresh at the possibilities and the limitations of online creativity and delivery. Perhaps it can have something to contribute to the wider arts sector here too.”

You can read the full report that was created as part of this project here: