Parliament Week 2011: Inside Westminster with the Parliamentary Archives' David Prior

David Prior interviewed by Ben Miller Published: 20 October 2011

A photo of a man in a suit looking at an ancient act of parliament
It feels a little unfair to ask the Parliamentary Archives' David Prior to pick out highlights from a collection spanning more than 500 years.

"We do have a few odd items here," he reflects. "One is a bag containing a specimen of an oil slick which was submitted to a House of Commons committee in 1978 as evidence relating to an oil spillage that year.

"The other unusual things we always mention in this context are the Tracy gravestone fragments. They were submitted to the House of Lords in 1845 as evidence in a peerage claim. In fact, they were proved to be forged."

The archives themselves, stored in 12 air-conditioned floors within the Victoria Tower, are a unique record of the way Parliament has affected the lives of generations of people, in the UK and across the world.

Prior, who is in charge of public services and outreach, has spent the past three years joining his colleagues in heading everywhere from Norwich and Newcastle to Birmingham, Maidstone and Cardiff – plus a few more places in between – on a mission to highlight the relevance of the Parliamentary Archives to the history of communities.

"The truth is there's a lot of material in our collections that relates to people’s lives and the places they live in. I think people are sometimes genuinely surprised that Parliament has its own archives dating back to 1497."

The hardworking team is keen to loan to regional archives, libraries and museums for exhibitions and displays. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was on display in Newcastle last year, and the 1536 Act of Union with Wales was displayed at the National Museum Wales at St Fagans a few months ago.

Despite the regional work, the Archives' Westminster base remains an important element in terms of access to collections.

Prior says about 1,000 visits are made every year to the dedicated Search Room, and around 6,000 enquiries by phone and email are received every year.

"We now have a lot more people who do family history research, because they’re interested in our railway plans, for instance," he explains.

"History is a popular subject – it's a good way of getting people involved with Parliament.

"Hopefully if they're interested in what Parliament did in the past then they might be interested in what it can do for them now."