What do we owe the dead?

This blog was first published on IMPS in the Archive.

To outsiders the worlds of archivists and historians might seem to be pretty similar, if not identical. After all, there’s a lot of a rootling about with dusty old documents and thinking about the past.

The reality, of course, is that both professions have their own interests, practices, theory, history and challenges. Yet there are also contexts and concerns that are common to practitioners in both, even though they may have different approaches to dealing with these.

The interdisciplinary conference The Nineteenth-Century Archive as a Discourse of Power was organised by the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies to provide “a forum for initiating an interdisciplinary conversation about the complex – and often conflicting – mechanism and power that lie within and beyond the nineteenth-century archive.”

The participants had an opportunity to reflect on their own archival experiences, problematic encounters with archival materials and consider how to negotiate the ideological frameworks in which 19th century archives were created. For example, how do decisions about sensitivity and public display interact with the ethics of silencing voices and repressing historical material?

There seems an urgent necessity to use archival material to reveal hidden stories, to give voice to people whose lives and stories have been forgotten or deliberately erased but what care is due to those people upon whose lives we shine a light?

The following is an attempt to summarise some of the main themes that arose in the talks and discussions, with some additional thoughts that arose as I continued to reflect on these discussions.

Knowing the origins of the archive

The first part of the classic definition of archives from the Society of the American Archivists is:

“1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.” [1]

But archives, whether private and public, can be very different and it pays to prepare before visiting, especially to prevent the researcher falling victim to ‘archive fever’, vividly described by Carolyn Steedman! [2]

Plaque of founder Henry Cole in the V&A Museum

‘A 19th archive’s structure can be the structure of 19th century thought’. [3] Certainly Tim Barringer’s keynote about the V&A focused on its origins as the British imperial archive – an attempt to encapsulate and organise the Empire and thus demonstrate domination. He explained that it was originally intended to be a design palette to inspire British manufacturers and designers. Then the  museum received the East India Company archive which was more of a ‘trophy cabinet’. It created an imperial taxonomy and the process of incorporating items into the museum changed their meanings. “Placement is power.” In contrast, another Victorian museum, established by John Ruskin in Sheffield, was intended to be anti-taxonomic. Ruskin felt that the V&A was trying to turn people into machines but by displaying a world in miniature, he aimed to create human beings through small truths.

Curators and users need to know the history of how an archive was created so they can effectively consider to what extent they are perpetuating structure of power in the archive. Archivists can help the researcher to see and navigate these structures.

Knowing the gaps created by power imbalances is important: this was raised by Carrie Long in her talk about researching petitions against court sentences. These are documents of an unequal power relationship yet also represent agency, even when not written by the person. Yet they still may not actually represent truth and are not a complete picture.

The difficulties encountered by Hannah Martin in trying to locate information about black and minority ethnic British colonial seafarers in the late 19th and early 20th century led to activism in the community to try to find sources, to fill in some of the gaps.

Using the contents of the archive

The difficulty of not just finding and accessing archives but also of using materials was brought to the fore in a session led by the PhD candidates. The contributors shared uncomfortable experiences of trying to look at materials in privately owned archives where the owners were reluctant to share the materials. In some cases, these materials are still owned by the same organisations which originally created the records and so are part of their stories. They are gatekeepers and have a different set of priorities to the historian.

So, what right does the historian have to make the people in the archives visible? And when using a private archive, if a researcher finds something unknown, surprising or unpleasant, what responsibility is there to say to the owner ‘there’s something here you need to know’?

And how should historians, curators and archivists deal with images, text and artefacts that are now offensive, or that we recognise as being in the collection as a result of imperial force, conquest, domination and exploitation?

A tall golden crown with a rounded top in an exhibition case
The Maqdala Crown in the V&A Museum

V&A Senior Curator Angus Patterson described how the V&A has started to handle displaying looted items. For example, for the Maqdala silver, working with an advisory group with Ethiopian representatives led to a re-interpretation which includes separate labels with views from the museum, external voices and quotes from 1868. The museum also held talks about contemporary Ethiopia and cultural events. Some of the items are now on long term loan to Ethiopia: return requires an Act of Parliament.

So should museums control, share or relinquish the narrative of contested heritage? And is the story of looting the only story that can be told about stolen objects?

In her talk Sadiah Qureshi explained how her work on Victorian ideas about extinction and how they were used to normalise interracial conflict has led her to some very discomforting experiences in the archive; not only papers exculpating or justifying genocide but actual pieces of the victims of this violence, such as locks of hair in archive boxes and skeletons on display in museums. As a researcher she has privileged access to these but she emphasized that she’s not sure that it’s right that she should have that access.

Some indigenous groups are using the archives but others are wary of what they represent. These kinds of collections also exclude traditional orality and thus its role in recording memory and history.

Archives can be sites of trauma. Deana Heath described her experience in finding the papers related to a case of a man in India in 1915 accused of theft who was subjected to sexual violence (rape) to extract a confession. What is his place in the record, in the archive and in the story? And what does the trace of this, and many similar incidents, in the archive, yet the failure to name these as crimes of sexual violence reveal about suppression in the archive? She recommended Dispossessed Lives by Maria Fuentes to see how interdisciplinary methodologies can be used to address and interrogate what is not present in the archive.

Activating the archive

Archivist Michelle Caswell has suggested that discussions about power, social justice and archives are happening on parallel tracks in the humanities but that there is a failure to connect and share these experiences and ideas.

So what are the boundaries of the archive?

The archival labour that goes into cataloguing helps to ‘map’ specific archives for ‘explorers’. The research of historians configures a wider archival landscape; conference contributors frequently referred to ‘creating an archive’ as they undertook research and collated materials and artefacts for their topic. And by writing a book, historians undertake another archival process, bringing ‘a conceptual archive to the archive’ [4].

Eric Ketelaar (referenced by Deana Heath) wrote “…Nor is the archive ever finished… Every interaction, intervention, interrogation, and interpretation by creator, user, and archivist is an activation of the record.[1] Each activation leaves fingerprints which are attributes to the archive’s infinite meaning. All these activations are acts of co-creatorship determining the record’s meaning. In the conceptualization of the records continuum, recordkeeping objects ‘are marked out by their processes of formation and continuing formation.’[2] A record is never finished, never complete, the record‘ is always in a process of becoming.’[3][5]

So everyone who has interacted with the record – its creators; the archivists who describe the records; the subjects in the records; and the users of the records, including historians – are all co-creators. Giving recognition to the parts they have played in the life of the records might be one way of respecting these sometimes hidden roles and contributions.

For example, in considering the meaning of archival labour, Bridget Whearty has written argued that “medievalists, and humanities scholars more broadly, have erred in writing and theorizing about “the archive” as an abstract, depopulated space, untouched by human labor and laborers”. In fact she has proposed what she has dubbed The Caswell Test (in recognition of Michelle Caswell) which “gives humanities scholars three short, easy to remember rules to follow whenever we write about libraries and archives in order to ensure that we are no longer engaging in the problematic erasure of archivists and librarians.”[6]

Archivists have used ideas of individual rights to support recognition for the subjects of records. However Caswell and Marika Cifor have argued, specifically in connection with 20th century archives connected with abuse and violence, for a “contrasting approach, informed by feminist ethics, that centres on radical empathy and obligations of care” where “archivists are seen as caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users, and communities through a web of mutual affective responsibility.”

They suggest that “…a feminist approach would shift four key archival relationships: the relationship between archivist and record creator, between archivist and record subject, between archivist and user, and between archivist and larger communities. In each of these relationships, we are advocating that archivists adopt an affective responsibility toward radical empathy.” [7]

Power is being exerted in, and through, the archive, presenting the issues outlined above. Could practising radical empathy help us decide what we owe the dead?

There were many other fascinating talks at The 19th Century Archive as a Discourse of Power that I have not had space to reference here. See the full programme of speakers (PDF).

My thanks to:

[1] Society of American Archivist, Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology – Archives https://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/a/archives

[2] ‘Something she called a fever: Michelet, Derrida and dust’ Chapter 2 in Dust by Carolyn Steedman, Manchester University Press, 2001

[3] Apologies, someone at the conference said this but my notes don’t make it clear who it was.

[4] Again, apologies, someone at the conference said this but my notes don’t make it clear who it was.

[5] Eric Ketelaar (2008) Archives as Spaces of Memory , Journal of the Society of Archivists, 29:1, 9-27, https://doi.org/10.1080/00379810802499678. p 12. [1]. Ketelaar, Eric. ‘Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives.’ Archival Science 1 (2001): 143–55; [2] Upward, Frank. ‘The Records Continuum’ in Archives: Recordkeeping in Society, ed by Sue McKemmish & others. Wagga-Wagga: Charles Sturt University, 2005. p 206; [3] McKemmish, Sue. ‘Are Records Ever Actual?’ In The Records Continuum ed by Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott. Clayton: Ancora Press and Australian Archives, 1994. p 200.

[6] Whearty, Bridget, “Invisible in ‘The Archive’: Librarians, Archivists, and The Caswell Test” (2018). English, General Literature, and Rhetoric Faculty Scholarship. 4. https://orb.binghamton.edu/english_fac/4

[7] From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives, Archivaria, 81 (Spring 2016), pp. 23-43 (Article) Published by Association of Canadian Archivists. Pg 24 https://archivaria.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/issue/view/465 

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