Mining for memories: A day in the Essex Record Office

Group viewing documents with Hannah with logo

On 6th July, our Mercury Voices received a guided tour of the Essex Record Office, the eventual home of the Mercury Voices project materials.

Monica, one of the volunteers, describes the day:

Early July. A hot, sticky summer’s day outside. But inside, it’s cool. Maybe a bit too cool. We’re in the storeroom of the Essex Record Office, home to thousands of precious documents, files, maps and artefacts covering over a 1000 years of Essex history. And these irreplaceable materials need to be kept at low temperatures.

Volunteers from the Mercury Theatre’s archive project, Mercury Voices, were taking a front of house and behind the scenes tour of the Record Office . This storehouse of Essex memories, based in Chelmsford, will be the eventual safehouse for much of the material that is being gathered for Mercury Voices – a compilation of 80 years of theatrical memories, stories and artefacts from the theatre, celebrating its past and contribution to Colchester’s artistic and cultural life. As the archive will contain documents, plans, scripts and a substantial number of oral history recordings – for the sound archives – the tour had been designed to demonstrate how the Record Office collects, stores, conserves and where appropriate, digitises the material it receives. Thanks to our very generous tour leader, Hannah Salisbury, the group really got an understanding of the challenges and complexities (but also the rewards) of capturing and presenting this rich period of theatrical history. Such a fascinating insight – and for the group, an opportunity to learn how we can contribute to the archive and play a part in safeguarding its future.

The opportunity to get up close to a part of the existing Mercury archive, already housed at the Office, was a delight, prompting reminiscences and reflections from some of the volunteers who have themselves been part of the Mercury story. Old programmes, cast lists and posters for both professional and amateur productions in the theatre’s auditorium and studio – all sorts of memories were triggered.

There’s a way to go in this project but seeing where some of the archive will be preserved for future generations to enjoy was very satisfying –and a privilege.

Fellow volunteer Jamie adds:

Ms. Salisbury, resident Engagement and Events Manager and long-serving staff member, explained to us how the building operates and led us respectively through conservation, reprographics, sound and video, digitisation, and archiving, explaining to us what each part is responsible for. Importantly, she told us of the difficulty involved in archiving, specifically in digitising documents and how we are still unsure when these digitised documents are going to decay and by what method. Some documents cannot be digitised because they are too fragile or too unwieldy, and therefore must be kept safe. Ms. Salisbury said that the building had been reinforced against flooding and warned us of what happened to the Cologne archive. How the ERO manages to preserve the documents and archives in its keeping with limited funding and space is a marvel and deserves commendation.

See the exhibition for yourselves

A temporary display of theatre documents stored at the Record Office is currently on show in the public search room. To take a look, you’ll need a one day Record Office ticket which is easily issued on the day. If your visit inspires you to want to know more and to look at other documents in the archive you will need a County Archive Research Network (CARN) ticket so be sure to take along some ID that shows your name and address (driving licence is ideal). Full details can be found at

Want to know more?

Read all about Mercury Voices or get in touch with our Project Managers, Claire and Laura, here.

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