Mr Smith goes to . . . The archive

A tour through the papery estate of the LSE

At a guess, an artist in residence at an archive, which is Ruth Maclennan's job description, is someone who can expect to be approached by librarians blushingly offering to show her their etchings. If you had any etchings, the tall, blonde and thoughtful Maclennan might well be the kind of person you would want to show them to. But at the time of writing, her door at the London School of Economics remains unknocked by colleagues wanting a professional opinion of their charcoal drawings. Ruth explains that her tenure is not like the stretch that other artists serve at Her Majesty's pleasure, encouraging the expressionists of D Wing. Instead, she will produce work inspired by ten months spent among the stacks.

The tradition of art going on surrounded by texts has given us Joe Orton and his scandalising lending-library marginalia, as well as Philip Larkin's anti-performance art as the scowling ticket-stamper of Hull University. Gosford Park is only the glossiest film to hinge on a murder in a study.

But your initial reaction is that Maclennan's got her work cut out for her. The archive she inhabits is not a redolently cobwebbed repository, but a modern storeroom full of white boxes, like the warehouse at the Start-Rite factory. As for resonant artefacts, you would search the LSE shelves in vain for the death masks of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, say, or for clay pipes from the Dark Ages, when Britain was ruled by noblemen like Tony Benn.

The impression of used stationery accreting in tidy drifts is emphasised by the newly acquired documents of Peter Shore. In their red boxes, they form a baleful column. Ruth and I dip into the papery estate of one of the more spiky parliamentarians of recent years, and come across an enervating correspondence about road humps. "Of course, these documents still have to be accessioned," says Maclennan, introducing me to the scrupulous archival term for the bin.

Maclennan has winkled out London street maps from 1898 that are colour-coded according to poverty. They amount to an A-Z of what the demographers now think of as the A-C2s. Parishes cross-hatched in black represent the home of the "lowest class, vicious and sub-criminal".

From a manila box full of black-and-white snaps, Maclennan produces a print of an old-timer in whiskers and plus fours. It takes a moment to recognise George Bernard Shaw, whose typically prodigious portfolio of photographs is thrillingly encountered as haphazardly as a family album discovered in a loft. Maclennan recovered one of his movie contracts ("Mr G Bernard Shaw overriding 10 per cent royalty") for her first exhibition in the archive. Given the location, there was naturally an accompanying piece of paper. In it, Maclennan compares her working environment to "an enormous brain. I am like the neurotransmitters that flow between the synapses, making connections wherever I can."

That sounds as energetic as you could wish, but in the unpeopled vault, you have the sense that the artist's commission is really a monumental still life.

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