tct6: m&s archiveBack
Anything that is 129 years old needs care and attention to keep it in good condition; and anything that is 129 years old will reflect rich experience gathered over almost two lifetimes. The Michael Marks Building in Leeds is only eighteen months old, but as home to the Marks & Spencer company archive it is responsible both for securing and celebrating the past of a business that began at Kirkgate Market in 1884, and for guiding the future of a company with stores in over forty countries.
“When you join M&S, in any role, part of your induction involves getting a real feel for its history,” said Katharine Carter, Company Archivist at the Michael Marks Building, which opened in 2009 in a shimmering bronze box in the grounds of the University of Leeds’ Business School. The M&S archive is more than just a library of past work. It took shape in the lead up to the company’s 100th birthday celebrations in 1984, and was a major part in the 125th anniversary in 2009, inspiring special merchandise ranges, pop up penny bazaars that harked back to the market stall where the M&S story began, and an exhibition of the company’s history attended by thousands of people.
“The public really responded well,” said Katharine. “There’s not just an interest in our heritage within the business, but people often have memories associated with going to M&S; a lot of women think about things like buying their first ever bra from M&S. It connects with people in a way that’s quite special.”
To develop those connections, much of the collection is digitised and available to view at the Marks in Time website; and when the archive moved from space above a store in north London to a new purpose built building in Leeds, its new archive team were able to invite the public in. As well as researchers and historians, school trips and casual visitors can view a permanent exhibition six days a week, and there are temporary exhibitions, special events and guided tours to bring people in all year round.
The ground floor showcases Marks & Spencers’ product ranges decade by decade, from late 19th century haberdashery, to efficient wartime clothing, to man-made fibres and frozen foods in the 1970s. Part of archivist Sarah Tester’s job is to change the items on display. “I’m always looking out for new things that we can put out, with a little bit of an eye for picking out the more visual side. One of the best items we have is a child’s till that we sold in the 1950s; it’s fantastic, because all the original money has survived with it, which is unusual for a child’s toy. It’s even got its original box, so that’s a perfect package and a lovely product.”
As well as providing a nostalgic service to generations of Marks & Spencers shoppers, the collection is heavily used by researchers, and within the business itself. The archive doesn’t just trace the changes to M&S product lines; it tells the story of a business that was only a teenager at the start of the 20th century, before radio or television, computers or the internet, motorways or air travel.
“The fact that we have items that are visually appealing is fantastic,” said Katharine, “But for us as a business, we feel our heritage makes us special, and we want to harness that heritage. We want our designers to benefit from it, and to be able to use it as an asset. So that nuts and bolts side of the business archive is a key thing for us.
“People might be looking at business management, or at internationalisation and how we had to keep adapting for different markets; current people in the international part of the business have used that material to inform what we do next.
“We have a really strong photograph collection, including advertising campaigns and examples of product and display, so you can really see how retail has developed in terms of visual messages to the customer, and the broader idea of communications and marketing. We’ve had researchers looking at things like use of language in our 1950s or 60s advertising. In the 1950s pretty much all of our marketing was aimed at the housewife, the theory being that she chose what she wore, what her children wore, and she definitely chose what her husband wore, so the idea of how gender issues come through in the language of our advertising is interesting.”
The archive is still growing, gathering examples of top selling or noteworthy new products, and key business decisions. “Increasingly an important business document might only be available electronically,” said Katharine, “So that gets added to our digital repository, with all the same criteria for making sure it’s safe, secure, and will last into the future.”
Digital working has been one of the biggest changes in the 129 years since Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer set up their first penny bazaar, all the data of an international business now handled by computers, stored on drives. But Katharine’s favourite object in the collection demonstrates a deceptively simple and condensed form of business data capture and processing from the first half of the twentieth century.
“We have a small pocketbook that belonged to Simon Marks, the son of Michael Marks, and chairman of the business for fifty years, who changed us from a chain of penny bazaars into a chain of high street department stores. And in this pocket book there is a double page entry for every single store he had in the business at that time, with information about how much sales floor space they had, how their sales were doing, how the manager was doing. The idea that he kept on top of the entire business personally, and it was all managed by one pocket book – I think that’s quite powerful, certainly when you think about how much stuff gets produced in the course of transactions of any type today. I just love the simplicity of everything being managed from this one book.”
Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 06