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Thursday 2 March 2017

Tony Steyger’s Video Nation Digital Archive project is opening a window into the past. He talks us through the project.

In 1994 a new type of television programme was launched on BBC2. Video Nation was shot entirely by members of the public on small camcorders. Only ninety seconds long, these edited shorts captured reflections on ordinary life – everything from cleaning to cooking, dreams to death.

The project represented a kind of anthropology of everyday lives in the UK at the end of the twentieth century, capturing thousands of hours of video over the next decade, from hundreds of contributors. Called “a television gem of immense value”, Video Nation picked up a Race in the Media award and a European Prix Iris before ceasing broadcast in 2011.

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My own involvement with Video Nation neatly bookends the project. Studying at the University of Sussex, I was fascinated by their archive of the famous Mass Observation project, collecting the written journals and diaries of members of the public stretching back to the 1930s.

When I joined the BBC’s Community Programme Unit in 1989, we started to experiment with domestic camcorders as part of the ground-breaking Video Diaries.

I was naturally reminded of Mass Observation’s army of nationwide correspondents, and conceived the idea to distribute domestic cameras to ordinary people up and down the country to record their lives on video, in their own words. The seed of Video Nation was sown.

Some twenty years later, at Southampton Solent University, I was shocked when word reached me that the videotapes containing all the original material were about to be junked as the BBC cleared out its headquarters at Television Centre.

With Solent’s support, I arranged for storage in a Southampton warehouse, rescuing more than 7000 hours of material from the skip and buying time to plan the next step.

Bringing the past to new life

Bill Thompson, Head of Partnership Development at the BBC, has always considered Video Nation to be a “YouTube before there was YouTube”.

For me, it’s tremendously exciting to glimpse and interpret our early video lives, capturing the beginnings of the internet, the rise of the mobile phone and historical moments such as the death of Princess Diana – as well as our more intimate and private preoccupations.

Joining Bill on the new project advisory group is Fiona Courage, Curator of Mass Observation. Fiona says: “Access to the collection will allow a valuable insight into the opinions and reactions of ordinary people for that period in time, and as such have strong synergies with the life writing documents of Mass Observation”.

The first phase of the project will be to sample the vast collection, to indicate its potential and to support bids for further funding. My vision is to see the archive digitised and made available to cultural and social historians and academics worldwide – allowing new interpretations of the past using today’s technology.

One of the first to dig into the archive will be Dr Alex Reynolds, a post-doctoral researcher at Solent who is interested in tracing the timeline from Mass Observation to the internet. “Digitising the Video Nation collection can help tell the socio-cultural and technological story of interactive media from the 1990s to today.”

Also collaborating on the Video Nation Digital Archive project is my colleague Dr Mike Saker, who specialises in digital cultures and the mediation of everyday life. “This restoration doesn’t simply cast a light on a significant period of social and cultural development,” Mike says; “it introduces the collection to a media ecology where archived footage can be reimagined alongside new and user-generated content – providing a unique, rich and synergic experience for generations to come.”