Archives & Society
29 March 2011
Leon Robinson (Positive Steps Organisation)
Unveiling the unknown: archiving the Black contribution to the performing arts over three centuries

“I don’t want any more black artists to pass away without being acknowledged for the great work that they had done.” 

This is Leon Robinson’s driving force for looking into long forgotten black artists from Victorian Britain.  Leon comes from a performing arts background but through his interest in collecting photographs and play bills of Victorian performers has moved into talking about history as a way of promoting what has almost become a lost history for the benefit of people today. “This is British Entertainment History” not just black history, Leon states firmly. 

Our second ever live stream was therefore a lively passionate affair with Leon showing various photographs, advertisement posters and videos.  Leon’s collection derives primarily from postcard fairs and it is now a large and rare collection of known and forgotten performers.  Indeed, Leon states that it was those performers that were unknown that most interested him when thumbing through the dealers stands.  The excitement of the hunt comes through clearly.  Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of Leon’s talk (other than his clear enthusiasm for the subject) is his story of how he collected these sources over many years; how he created his archive himself and learnt about what was out there and where to look.   Uncovering history is however, only part of it – Leon is not collecting for collecting sake he wants to spread the word and let other people know about what he is learning and finding.  Through his Positive Steps Organisation, Leon has created various videos (some of which he shows) about the history of black performers and his attempts to get young people involved through the use of lenticulars of those performers. 

Leon also highlighted a problem in cataloguing systems especially related to finding or identifying the colour of Victorian performers.   As an example Leon discussed a poster advertising a dance group with no images.  On another occasion when Leon went to an archive they told him that they had no materials on black entertainers but when Leon turned to leave he noticed a poster on the wall with the name Florence Mills  which he recognised as being a black artist.  There is a very real problem here of identification especially when there is no visual imagery to give us that identification.   

I was at the session itself and have since reviewed the video and both times I found it hard not to get enthused and excited about what Leon was talking about.  He reaches down to the heart of what makes an historian tick (the excitement of searching archives and discovering new things about our subjects) but expresses that enthusiasm in a way that few historians would allow of themselves.  This of course comes from Leon deriving from a performing arts background.  His interest is in the excitement of presentation of these sources and what they can say more than writing of articles and books.  I think one of the questions that we received from our online audience summed up my thoughts on this: it was great to see the “physicality of the archives emphasised so much”.

To listen/watch this podcast please click here.