A Day in the Life of a Classicist

Classics is immensely transferable as a subject, and its students go on to almost every walk of life. But what is the Classics profession itself like? Philippa Williams will be talking to several people in the field, hearing about their working lives. It soon becomes clear that the profession of Classics, far from being 'dead', is incredibly rich and varied.

This week, Philippa speaks with NAOMI SETCHELL, the archivist at the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama.



Naomi tells Iris about the APGRD's huge collections, how much multi-tasking she has to do and how to organise an exhibition on a tight budget. 


In your role as APGRD archivist, what source material do you deal with?

The APGRD archive collections come from works of theatre, dance, opera and film that are based on ancient dramatic and epic texts. These range from handwritten and printed documents to audiovisual recordings. The collection has a strong emphasis on 20th-century material but includes material from the 17th century onwards.

For example, the papers of Professor Wilhelm Leyhausen, one of the centrepieces of the archive, detail the significant contribution he and his wife made to the revival of Greek and Roman drama from the 1920s through to the 1970s. The collection’s 26 boxes contain production and rehearsal photographs, personal photographs, programmes, leaflets, booklets, audio reels, newspaper cuttings, correspondence, lantern slides, glass plates, prompt books and production posters.

The APGRD also houses an extensive library on the performance and reception of ancient texts. As well as scholarship, there is a collection of play texts, novels and poetry. Most of the books date from the 19th century onwards but there are also rare books dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Finally, we have an online performance database that details quantitative information about performances of Greek and Roman drama from antiquity to the present day, which has been collated by researchers working with the project over the course of several years.


What is the APGRD's aim?

The APGRD aims to create a wider community of scholarship, drawing on experts and practitioners from the worlds of Classics, theatre, music and dance, as well as opening up the world of ancient theatre to new audiences beyond the academy.

Our research team produces pioneering studies (most recently on choruses and on performance of epic), which are complemented by the freely-accessible databases of ancient and modern performance. Our archive collections offer the raw materials for future scholarship and allow modern performances to be preserved. Our events, meanwhile, provide a space for performance practitioners, academics, students and the public to engage with each other, and for new work to be produced and performed.


Who often needs to consult the APGRD archive?

A variety of people consult the archive collections, from academics to teachers, theatre practitioners and TV professionals, from around the world. Over the last year, we’ve had visitors from Spain, Japan, France, China, Finland, Poland, Russia and Australia; it is a very international community, making the APGRD a vibrant place to work.


Is your day-to-day routine much the same, or does it vary from week to week?

Archive work is much more than cataloguing old manuscripts; it involves managing the archive collection in a much larger, living context. Being the APGRD archivist is no exception. I undertake a range of duties from day-to-day service provision for researchers and project administration, to the management of major programmes; this variety is really appealing. For example, I could be finding research materials for a visitor, designing posters for our next public lecture, writing a funding bid for a new programme, supervising volunteers, and installing our next exhibition, in addition to providing a safe environment for the actual collections.


How does being APGRD archivist differ from the other archive work you have done?

I am grateful for all of my previous archive experience because I draw on it every day. The APGRD exists in a thriving research community, so I can engage more directly with researchers as I help to organize conferences and seminars. There are always interesting links to be drawn between Classical reception and my own academic background of Anthropology and the History of Ideas. I am even using my academic interest in China to develop a new dataset for the archive.

The archive collections naturally lend themselves to public engagement because of the performance-related content. With our growing network of contacts and partners in various fields, we can draw on the archive collections in innovative ways to develop public programmes, from collecting oral histories to curating exhibitions and organizing gala events. All of these enhance and complement the more academic side of the APGRD.


What would you say is the most enjoyable element of this role?

I really enjoy organizing our AHRC-funded ‘Communicating Ancient Greece and Rome’ programme. This two-year programme helps doctoral and early career researchers to talk with and build sustainable collaborations with organizations in the media, arts and heritage, and education sectors. The participants come from 12 different UK universities and are a great group of people to spend time with; it is very rewarding to see them apply what they have gained from the sessions as they develop their own public engagement programmes throughout the course.


And the most demanding?

Finding and maintaining a secure environment for an archive can often be tricky because of the shortage of suitable space and funds. The APGRD collection is no exception but I try to make the most of the resources we do have, whether negotiating use of a good storage room or seeking conservation expertise at the Bodleian.

Producing exhibitions on a microscopic budget is also a challenge but one that I really enjoy. You have to constantly balance preservation requirements with presentation and available funds. By asking around, we saved thousands of pounds when we took on free second-hand display cases that were going to be thrown away but were still in excellent condition.


What is particularly appealing about being an archivist in Oxford?

I’m very lucky to be working with remarkable colleagues on a vibrant project, so the APGRD could be anywhere and I would be very happy. Working in a university does mean I have easy access to libraries, lectures and inspiring conversation, leaving me with no excuse to rest on my laurels. I’m learning Chinese at the University’s Language Centre, for example.

Does the job involve travel or research outside the workplace?

The APGRD’s ‘Communicating Ancient Greece and Rome’ programme takes me to a variety of interesting venues around the UK, such as the National Trust’s Kedleston Hall in Derby and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. This way, participants have the chance to speak with a variety of professionals, from curators to publishers and radio producers, and to see the way institutions might engage with different audiences, and how they could contribute to this as academics.

Arranging loans for APGRD exhibitions takes me around the UK – I will be heading to Newcastle, Leeds and London for our upcoming exhibition and anniversary event for Tony Harrison’s Trackers of Oxyrhynchus in Delphi, for example. I also have to keep my passport up-to-date: since starting at the APGRD, I have been to Greece for an awards ceremony, to New York for a new set of performance data, and most recently, to Poland to advise on an exhibition for the Staniewski Centre for Theatre Practices, one of our international partners.

Do you have a favourite Greek or Roman drama?

A few years ago I was in a production of Seneca’s Medea. His bizarre descriptions of the cosmos as something both claustrophobic and vast are very powerful. They reminded me strongly of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my favourite films. The following lines, for example, are particularly evocative:

“A time will come when the world will be a city
Building walls in different lands
Space will be ocean, chains ruptured by noise
Universe will stretch open its vast blackness
Twist into colour The Moon
Will be a stone’s throw away” (trans. Henry Stead)


Learn more about the APGRD at www.apgrd.ox.ac.uk. The archive welcomes visitors by appointment at any stage of research from school-level upwards.