James Hyman opens up on the world’s largest magazine archive

James Hyman in the stacks of his ever growing magazine collection. Picture: Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times
James Hyman in the stacks of his ever growing magazine collection. Picture: Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times
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When James Hyman was a scriptwriter at MTV Europe, in the 1990s, before the rise of the internet, there was a practical – as well as compulsive – reason he amassed an enormous collection of magazines.

Whenever possible, Hyman tried to keep two copies of each magazine he acquired. One pristine copy was for his nascent magazine collection and another was for general circulation among his colleagues, marked with his name to ensure it found its way back to him. The magazines he used to research features on musicians and bands formed the early core of what became the Hyman Archive, which now contains approximately 160,000 magazines, most of which are not digitally archived or anywhere on the internet.

It is frigid inside the archive during a recent visit – a good 10 degrees colder than the chilly air outside – and staffers are bundled up. Space heaters illuminate a nest that Tory Turk (the creative lead), Alexia Marmara (the editorial lead) and Hyman have made for themselves amid boxes of donations to the collection. It lines more than 3,000 feet of shelving in a former cannon foundry in the 18th-century Royal Arsenal complex in Woolwich, southeast London.

The Hyman Archive was confirmed as the largest collection of magazines in 2012 by Guinness World Records; then, it had just 50,953 magazines, 2,312 of them unique titles. Now, a year and a half after Hyman was interviewed by BBC Radio 4, donations are pouring in, and amid them Hyman and his staff have carved out space for an armchair and a snack-laden desk. (The rest of the foundry is a storage facility used mostly by media companies to house their film archives and the obsolete technology with which they were made.)

At a moment when the old titans like Condé Nast and Time Inc. are contracting, shape-shifting and anxiously hashtagging, herein lies a museum of real magazine making, testament to the old glossy solidity. The price of admission, however, is stiff: Visitors can do research with a staffer’s aid for £75 per hour, with negotiable day rates (and a student discount of 20 per cent), or gingerly borrow a magazine for three working days for £50.

“I always knew it was a cultural resource and that there was value in it,” Hyman says of the archive. But having the collection verified by Guinness was about validation, he says, “because then people might take it more seriously than just thinking: ‘Some lunatic’s got a warehouse full of magazines.’”

Turk has a knack for repackaging Hyman’s animated monologues into what in the trade are called sound bites. “I maintain that James always had the foresight that this was going to be something else, more than just a sort of collector’s dream,” she says. “The archive is all about preserving and documenting the history of print.”

Each member of the team has a particular familiarity with the archive’s contents and has an institutional knowledge of certain titles and their whereabouts. Hyman is great on music, with a particular fondness for New Musical Express. Turk is strong on fashion, and Marmara is especially good at unearthing what Hyman calls “visual gold” – weird or unsung design elements, photo shoots or ads.

“If we all died tomorrow, it would be over,” Turk says.

No donation is turned down, and Hyman describes the archive as a final resting place for printed matter. “We’re heaven for magazines,” he says.

The archive, for example, recently accepted a “loan” of around 2,680 British, Italian, French and US fashion magazines dating back to the 1930s from Colin McDowell, the author of 25 books on fashion. McDowell says his magazines were becoming “unmanageable in my Soho pied-à-terre and overwhelming in my house in the country.”

McDowell says he saved the magazines because they were “the quickest and most memorable source of information,” and that he was “more interested in how clothes are featured in magazines than in their catwalk life,” as well as in fashion photography and illustration trends. Hyman accepted the magazines on the condition that McDowell can recover them from the archive should he need them and that his collection remain intact.

Jeremy Leslie, the owner of MagCulture, a magazine shop in London that serves as the locus of a boom in independent magazine publishing says that because magazines by their very nature were rushed to press, they reflect the particular quirks of society during short intervals of time.

“In order to understand the value of the Hyman Archive, you have to understand the value of magazines above and beyond their contemporary purpose,” he says. “There is a canon of great magazines that is forming, but actually when you look through even magazines that are central to that canon, you see the pages you don’t get shown. There are so many subplots to this bigger picture that don’t get spotted unless you have the whole thing.”

This is especially true of niche magazines or ones that aren’t widely thought of as classics, Leslie says. “When you come to look at something from 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, there are obvious kinds of historical archive-worthy elements, but they are also a great record of design trends, typefaces, photography, writing and technology, so they are fantastic records of time gone.”

During a recent visit, Hyman shows some of the titles and design elements he considers particularly important, including fake ads from Mad magazine trolling the cigarette industry; Kate Moss’ first cover (The Face, July 1990); the Notorious B.I.G.’s first appearance in The Source (March 1992); Rihanna on the cover of the first free issue of New Musical Express (September 2015); and a hacking magazine from 1984 called 2600 (“the frequency you used to use to get free calls if you blow your Cap’n Crunch whistle down the phone line,” Hyman says) that lists all of the direct phone extensions in the Reagan White House.

For the archivists, “weird” is the highest praise. They’re fascinated by the ads in a copy of Family Circle from 1974, and a cereal-box-shaped Select magazine from January 1997 – dedicated ironically to the year 1996 – occupies pride of place above their desk, despite a Jolly Rancher sweetie that came with the magazine having melted inside it.

Hyman isn’t a completist, at least not anymore. “I used to be,” he says, “but it will never end.” Instead, he is seeking funding to finish meta-tagging and digitising the entire archive for use by academics, curators and researchers. He still tries to get two copies of each magazine, but now it’s because one needs to be unbound for faster scanning. An archivist has examined the setup at Cannon House and determined it will be safe for another five years or so before needing to be housed properly, ideally as the permanent collection in a proper museum of magazines.

“The style of exhibition is changing, it’s becoming more populist, more based around contemporary culture, so therefore magazines are becoming important objects,” Turk says. “They show the period, they’re great objects.”

Still, there are titles Hyman covets. He recently attended a lecture on Japanese magazines, and his mind was somewhat blown by the Tokyo-based Popeye, the nearly unclassifiable “magazine for city boys.”

“My jaw just hit the ground. It was ridiculous. I was like, ‘I can’t wait for the crate to arrive with every issue of Popeye,’” he says. The speaker “had another magazine that was just about businessmen who’d got too drunk and went to sleep in the middle of the night in weird places. And he had two different magazines just about pigeons. I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

© NYT 2018