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Firestarters - grant will conserve and catalogue the archive of Welfare State International

One of WSI's events using lanterns and fireworksUniversity of Bristol Theatre Collection/Welfare State International/Ged Murray

Glasgow All Lit Up posterUniversity of Bristol Theatre Collection/Welfare State International/Ken Meharg and Annie Butcher

Press release issued: 20 December 2021

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection has been awarded £281,758 by the Wellcome Trust to conserve, catalogue and make available the archive of Welfare State International (WSI).

WSI evolved from radical travelling performers to become embedded community artists and celebrants, working to weave art more fully into the fabric of life.

One characteristic of their early work was the use of fire and light. They established the Ulverston Lantern Festival in 1983, which is still going strong.  It was inspired by a traditional lantern procession seen by the company in Japan whilst they were performing in an international theatre festival. 

The Ulverston procession is now an annual ceremony by and for the community.  The company also organised the 10,000 strong lantern parade “Glasgow All Lit Up” for the European City of Culture in 1990, bringing together the Strathclyde community, and making the biggest lantern procession in Europe. 

There are now lantern processions all around the country, including Bristol’s own Bedminster lantern parade.

After 38 years of producing exceptional work, WSI closed in 2006; its artistic director stepped down, and they left the building, Lanternhouse, in Ulverston, where they had been based since 1999. The WSI archive provides an unparalleled record of pioneering participatory arts practice for health and wellbeing a generation ahead of its time.

This new project, appropriately called Firestarters, and led by the University of Bristol’s Theatre Collection, will make the archive available to provide evidence and inspiration for future research and practice and will respond to demand from a broad spectrum of social science, health and arts researchers and practitioners, to explore WSI's innovative methodologies. 

Lucy Powell, Keeper - Theatre Archives, said: “We are very grateful to the many researchers and practitioners who contributed to the development of the project with their knowledge and insight.

“Welfare State International were internationally acclaimed for their work, which shifted the parameters of arts practice and policy in the UK and beyond and influenced the arts for wellbeing movement including emerging practices in social prescribing.”

The uniquely detailed archive spans four decades and contains artworks, films, photographs and objects as well as written records such as scripts and music recording the company’s work.

The scale of the collections means that the project will take over three years to complete.  A comprehensive archive catalogue will be published online, key material will be digitised for preservation and access, and conservation work will ensure the long-term survival of this important collection. 

When complete the material will be readily accessible to students, researchers, creative practitioners and members of the public.

Further information

The Theatre Collection was founded in 1951 to support the establishment of Drama as an academic discipline in the UK and has grown to become one of the world’s leading collections relating to the history of British theatre and live art. The Theatre Collection comprises over 140 named collections and archives, including actors and collectors Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson. 

It also holds artworks, audio visual material, costumes, designs, set models, playbills and programmes of this most ephemeral of art forms.  The collections are particularly strong from the late 18th century onwards and document the onstage and offstage life of theatre. It provides a unique insight into theatre and live art, their creative processes and broader cultural contexts. The Theatre Collection’s holistic approach to collecting across archives and objects, and the interconnectedness between the collections, make it an outstanding research resource.

Last year it was awarded Designated status by Arts Council England in recognition of its national significance.

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