Thursday 26 March 2015

Heritage Spotlight - The Riot Grrrl Collection

Last year I wrote about the origins of Riot Grrrl, a primarily music-based activist movement formed in the US in the late 1980s. In 2009 a specific archive of material belonging to members of the movement was created at the Fales Library and Special Collections in New York.

Naturally called The Riot Grrrl Collection this archive is the brainchild and responsibility of one of the early Riot Grrrl followers who, fortunately, is a qualified archivist at the Fales Library, Lisa Darms.

As a youngster Lisa had been active in the punk and feminist communities at college in Olympia, Washington State. This was the cradle of the Riot Grrrl movement as the 1980s turned into the 1990s. One of Lisa’s room-mates during this time at college was Kathleen Hanna, one of the pioneers of Riot Grrrl. Indeed, Kathleen is one of the creators of a fanzine called “Riot Grrrl” which gave the movement its name.

Both Kathleen and Lisa studied photography at Evergreen State College. Lisa’s interests began to turn of art history and research. After gaining an Advanced Certificate in Archival Management Lisa began working in a series of archivist positions, including at the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Mayor’s office.

In 2008 Lisa applied for the position of Senior Archivist at the Fales Library. Lisa had already had the idea of forming an archive of Riot Grrrl material when she was being interviewed for the post. She discussed it with her old friend Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman, another Riot Grrrl pioneer, after they all took part in a panel discussion at Fales about donations to libraries by musicians and artists generally.

Kathleen was very enthusiastic about the idea and once Lisa was appointed as Senior Archivist it seemed all the right people were in the right place at the right time to make the Riot Grrrl archive a possibility. Lisa suggested the idea to the library’s director, Marvin Taylor, and he agreed to help create the archive. With her connections and contacts in the movement Lisa had many possible donors to approach.

But why did such a relatively small and private library as Fales seem so keen on creating a new collection on the Riot Grrrl movement in its archive?

The Fales Library and Special Collections is part of New York University. It is named after DeCoursey Fales (1888-1966) who began donating thousands of manuscripts, books and documents to the university from 1957. From this core collection the Fales Library was formed. Over the decades new documents and collections began to be based there, including the Downtown Collection. This is a large archive of material relating to New York’s punk culture dating back to 1975. The Fales director, Marvin Taylor, recognised how the Riot Grrrl Collection would form an ideal parallel archive.

The Downtown Collection was created by Marvin himself. Being a self-confessed “queer boy from the Quaker Midwest” it seems a little incongruous to find him curating this collection, the most popular and most consulted of the special collections at Fales. Marvin has been Director for over twenty years, and as long as the Downtown Collection remains popular I don’t imagine he’ll leave until he retires.

So that’s how and why the Riot Grrrl Collection came into being. But what exactly does the archive contain? As I said earlier, Lisa has many personal contacts with some of the founders and pioneers of the movement, so it wasn’t difficult finding possible donors. Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman both donated material to the new collection, as well as several other pioneers.

Virtually anything is accepted – books, posters, artwork, diaries, personal papers, fanzines, old video tapes, audio cassettes, vinyl records, photographs, films, you name it. One of the more unexpected artifacts Lisa has had to refuse is a bottle containing someone’s poo (shades of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”)!

But it would be wrong to think that something like the Riot Grrrl Collection would be of no interest to anyone other than Riot Grrrl fans. Like most collections of this type, whatever the subject, it represents a snapshot of the society in which that particular subject developed. It can tell us a lot about the fashions, art and social attitudes of a particular time and place, and all too often it is the small, seemingly insignificant items that can reveal the most. Many a time I’ve regretted throwing away an old postcard or dog-eared magazine, or not hanging on to the flyers handed out at early Nottingham Pride event.

The Riot Grrrl Collection, while focussing on a particular sub-culture, is vital in understanding how the wider lgbt community has taken shape. And, most of all, it preserves the names of those who were part of it.

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