Museums, Archives & Heritage

Catching the Activist Archivist Fever

Filing cabinet. Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi.

Historians have traditionally described their experiences of the archive as encounters with unfiltered history. Archival records are seen not to bear the stains of published sources and to present the possibility of holding the literal past in one’s hands. In 2012, when the National Archives launched a new online catalogue, it was named ‘Discovery’, reflecting the perception that the archives represent an untouched repository awaiting exploration. Yet the archive has frequently been turned to political ends. Selective preservation, access controls, and even complete destruction have been used to privilege particular narratives and silence others, all before the historians’ encounter even begins.

Jacques Derrida, in his seminal work Archive Fever, traced the origin of ‘archive’ to the Greek arkheion, home of the archons – ‘those who commanded’ – who held a unique entitlement to produce and interpret documents. The archival record thus has a history of being bound up with power. When the National Archives were created in the nineteenth century, they were staffed by civil servants expressly directed to preserve the ‘public record’ with a view towards posterity. This record equated, of course, solely to the materials produced by the government.

The ability to cultivate a chosen historical narrative has frequently led to abuse. Nazi and Soviet practices of manipulating the documents within their state archives are well known, as are their attempts to eliminate works that did not accord with their vision of their histories. During the apartheid regime, the South African public archives adopted monolingual policies actively designed to exclude indigenous peoples from the historical record – a practice also common in colonial regimes. When this did not serve to adequately silence a dissenting voice, simple destruction was often the alternative. In the six months before apartheid was brought down, the National Intelligence Service destroyed 44 tonnes of documents held in archives to cover up past crimes

A traditional archive – the DDR in Berlin

Following the massacre of peaceful Algerian protesters by the Parisian police in 1961, the French authorities imposed a fifty-year period of ‘archival silence’ (Lia Brozgal, ‘In the Absence of the Archive’, 35). The state prohibited media reports on the subject and exerted enough pressure that the coroner’s office recorded the causes of death as ‘drowning by bullets’ – a grim reference to the fact that the victims’ bullet-ridden bodies had to be retrieved the Seine. The government relied upon its 50-year rule for document release to sustain silence – only when these materials were released for the first time in 2012.

Non-state archives, too, have actively reinforced narratives at the expense of disadvantaged communities. One university archive, in receipt of materials bequeathed by the Anglican priest Canon C T Wood in 1980, systematically withheld or destroyed elements of the collection. This was done supposedly to protect the Canon’s reputation: the materials included letters written to him by priests and the laity around the world referring to ‘our condition’. The archivists were remarkably thorough in being able to detect these allusions to homosexuality, and their conscious censoring of them in the name of societal norms belies the image of neutral curatorship. If not for the diligent work of later researchers, the evidence of these struggling voices seeking help from within their church would have been forever silenced, and part of queer history would have been lost.

Alongside these more transparent efforts, T-Kay Sangwand argues that ‘insidious acts’ have also long taken place which have had an impact on subsequent histories. The appraisal, selection, and catalogue phraseology of documents are all choices which may be subject to (often unconscious) linguistic, cultural, and societal biases.

Increasingly, scholarship of an ‘archival turn’ recognises the imbalance in archival power that can result from these choices, and many archivists have adopted an activist stance – throwing off their conventional aura of impartiality, which they recognise to be false, to instead participate actively in producing more inclusive collections.

Much of this work has been done at the local level: some of the more pioneering initiatives have worked to engage communities in their own public history. The Teenie Harris Collection, for instance, serves as the only record of a period of a thriving culture of African-American Pittsburgh; the captioning of its records – twelve-thousand so far – has been achieved thanks to community-outreach projects. The South London Black Music Archive had similar aims when it transformed Peckham tube station into an open archive inviting community contributions and treated these with ‘the reverence normally accorded to museum pieces’.

The South London Black Music Archive map of South London
© Culture24.

Archivists have also been quicker than many historians to champion oral history as a source of legitimate interest, with Fredric Miller and Derek Reimer each arguing in 1981 that archivists ought to pursue the creation of this kind of evidence, via interviews and recordings, lest the histories of certain groups be lost forever. These efforts led to new stores of knowledge, preserving these stories for all.

Larger archives, including those operated by the state, have been used to serve activist causes too – demonstrating that any collection may potentially be turned towards social justice where the will exists. The apology and compensation received by the victims of the Tuskegee experiments, wherein African-Americans were subjected to forty years of uninformed human experimentation, was only possible because campaigners were able to draw on detailed records held by the National Archives and Records Administration. The effort to secure redress for the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Australia – children forcibly adopted away from their original communities – was similarly able to mobilise the archive to hold past governments to account and help, in some cases, reunite divided families.

There is a difference, of course, between the potential for good and active efforts made towards it. While all archives may have the potential to serve a cause, activist archivists take this further by making conscious efforts to facilitate change.

At an institutional level, this might involve a clear shift in policy. The university archive which purged Canon Wood’s collection now hosts its country’s Gay and Lesbian Queer Archives. Archives might also ensure that certain histories are not lost by engaging with communities, welcoming new material, and making extra efforts to ensure accessibility and availability. A commonly posed solution is digitisation: easier, cheaper access without geographic or institutional barriers. It is not, however, a panacea – high-speed internet cannot everywhere be taken for granted, and which records are selected for digitisation poses new questions. Some communities may also object to their cultural artefacts being shared widely. Following the lead of local and community archives here by making these conversations two-way will likely yield more beneficial results.

A collection of materials held by the GALA Queer Archive in South Africa

For its part, in response to recent rallying cries regarding racial injustice, the National Archives has issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and drawn attention to its online collections and research guides relating to black British history.

This is just the beginning, however. Achille Mbembe, in a 2002 essay, argued that not all documents are destined to be kept: choosing to accept a document into an archive is a conferral of status. So far, materials documenting police violence against black communities, as well as other modern instances of ingrained structural racism have largely been collected by activists in a crowd-sourced effort. State-level archives will soon be required to make choices about how materials relating to the present-day struggles are collected, recorded, and catalogued, and this work will shape future histories written on the subject.

Reports of the Russian government purging archival evidence of Stalinist abuses, as they are inconvenient to today’s preferred narrative, demonstrate clearly that these ‘magical’ places will continue to be manipulated when convenient to the state; this is not only a problem of the past. Too easily, a defence of history can be mobilised as an explanation for inaction in the face of progressive causes – as with the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University’s contention that the removal of colonial statues is akin to ‘hiding our history’. Historians cannot allow their discipline to be recruited into the service of inertia when a much more serious hiding of history has traditionally played out in the archive.

In 1970, Howard Zinn wrote an influential piece for an archivists’ journal arguing that adopting an activist stance in the archives was not the ‘politicizing of a neutral craft’ but was the ‘humanizing of an inevitably political craft’. One hopes that future researchers, seeking their own discovery in the archives and in their academic libraries, will find evidence of activist archivists and historians challenging the status quo.

Further reading

Brozgal, Lia. ‘In the Absence of the Archive (Paris, October 17, 1961)’. South Central Review 31, no. 1 (13 March 2014): 34–54.

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Paperback ed., [Nachdr.]. Religion and Postmodernism. Chicago, Ill.: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008.

Hamilton, Carolyn, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh, eds. Refiguring the Archive. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2002. – in particular chapters by Achille Mbembe and Graeme Reid

Miller, Fredric. ‘Social History and Archival Practice’. The American Archivist 44, no. 2 (April 1981): 113–24.

Reimer, Derek. ‘Oral History and Archives: The Case in Favor’. Canadian Oral History Association Journal 5 (1981): 30–33.

Sangwand, T-Kay. ‘Preservation Is Political: Enacting Contributive Justice and Decolonizing Transnational Archival Collaborations’. KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies 2, no. 1 (29 November 2018): 10.

Strauss, Amanda ‘Treading the Ground of Contested Memory: Archivists and the Human Rights Movement in Chile’, Archival Science 15, no. 4 (December 2015)

Zinn, Howard. ‘Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest’. The Midwestern Archivist 2, no. 2 (1977): 14–26.



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