Disrupting the myth of the archive

Problematic information is more easily recognized within an archive if people can find a way to challenge the overarching mythos of the archive itself.

A very boring neighbourhood is joined by worlds unknown.

An archive becomes such because individuals decide that certain pieces of knowledge and data should be collected and retained following initial generation and use. This is a political act: we select material to retain at the expense of other material data.

Digital Women’s Archive North, 157.

Perhaps the most significant piece of misinformation generated by archives is the impression of their own objectivity. DWAN (Digital Women’s Archive North) goes on to explain that often the identity of the archivist or collector is entirely absent from or secondary to the material in archives. The authority of the collection as a factual, valuable record of the monolithic truth of history is presumed largely because archives are separated from the individuals or teams that created them — they become naturalized and it is made easy to forget they were themselves created in the first place.

This makes it all the more interesting to ask — as researchers increasingly are — about how archives generate misinformation behind their many facades of objectivity. This involves, not only critical engagement with knowledge created by archives, but also a rethinking of archives themselves.

DWAN, a feminist arts and heritage organization, identifies five categories of archival practice: selection, type, facilitation, storage and time, and access. They explore opportunities for disruption at each stage, but here I am concerned with the misinformation that can occur if these processes go unchallenged.

Here I want to think mostly about selection.

The misinformation perpetuated by archives about themselves and their authority spreads throughout all the stages of their creation, but is perhaps most obvious in the selection stage. Not only are the materials selected often detached from the identity of the archivist, but these materials are often collected in connection with institutional or state projects (Martinez, 163). Archives, like, for example, the Sodbusters archive (established to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Alberta), feed into nationalist narratives that operate behind a facade of objective, non-biased collection.

Dallas Hunt writes of the Sodbusters archive that it “functions as an archive that consolidates settler claims to the territory and history of the Swan River Valley.” By privileging the collecting of objects such as photographs — photographs labelled by researchers and not community members — this archive shows misinformation perpetuated at the selection level and at the type level, ie. the categorization of collected materials. 

Hunt gives an example of a photograph that he discussed with his grandmother: the researcher labelled it as a photograph of her, but it was a photograph of another child. This shows disturbingly “the ability of Indigenous bodies, especially girls’ bodies, to be read as so similar as to be substitutable for one another.” Another photograph is labelled as showing his grandmother next to a log cabin, which is in fact a farmhouse and again the misinformation caused by the colonial agenda is elevated as historical truth. Moreover, the use of the pronouns ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ throughout this archive reinforce colonial claims to the land.

The materiality of archival collections likewise demonstrates the privileging of colonial values in the selection stage. Archives perpetuate misinformation by privileging written texts and easily preserved art works. They preserve written legal documents but not oral legal knowledge. They preserve oil paintings from the academy but not feminist performance art. In doing so, they retrace the ideology that written text and oil paintings are higher forms of practice adding a mirage of reproduced layers onto our cultural canvas. Archives not only operate with colonial values but perpetuate them.

Problems also emerge separate from the location and interests of the individual archivist. The process of selection is also shaped by the power and biases of history. Traditional archives are bound by material records — official documents, artworks, publications, household objects, and more — but this means they can only collect what exists. This might seem too obvious to mention, but the result is problematic information and it would be remiss to not consider the implications. 

Historical figures who benefitted from intersections of privilege and fit into the societal expectations of their historical moments are the ones from whom we inherit the most records. They left the greatest diversity of records about the multiplicitous aspects of their own lives, and it is also through their gaze that the lives of marginalized communities and individuals were most commonly recorded. For example, if we were to take archives as objective holders of historical truths then historical queerness would be reduced to primarily punitive records: Catherina Margaretha Linck and Cartharina Margaretha Muhlhan’s relationship would only amount to the legal record of their sodomy trial from 1721; the legacy of Suora Benedetta Carlini and her mystic experiences, her powerful position as a 17th century Abbess, and her relationship with another nun would have remained confined to a box in the State Archive of Florence which hold the papers related to her trial.

This is a political act…. In selecting certain content we announce to future users that this material holds importance.

Digital Women’s Archive North, 157.

It is time to ask our archives and our archivists what future is being created and to which pasts we are accountable. To begin we must denounce the facade of the archives’ authority and completeness. To move forward we must remake the archive. 

Relevant sources

Brown, Judith C. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 

[DWAN] Digital Women’s Archive North. “The Feminists Are Cackling in the Archive.” Feminist Review, no. 115 (2017): 155-64. Accessed May 17, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1057%2Fs41305-017-0024-4

Eriksson, Brigitte. “A Lesbian Execution in Germany, 1721: The Trial Records.” Journal of Homosexuality 6, no. 1-2 (1981;1980;): 27-40. https://doi.org/10.1300/J082v06n01_04.

Hunt, Dallas. “Nikîkîwân: Contesting Settler-Colonial Archives through Indigenous Oral History.” Canadian Literature, no. 25 (2016) 230-231. https://doi.org/10.14288/cl.v0i230-1.187955

Kim, Dorothy. “Remaking History: Lesbian Feminist Historical Methods in the Digital
Humanities,” in Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, ed. Elizabeth Losh and Jaqueline Wernimont. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2018) 131-156. 
Martinez, M. E. “Archives, Bodies, and Imagination: The Case of Juana Aguilar and Queer Approaches to History, Sexuality, and Politics.” Radical History Review, no. 120 (2014): 159-182. https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-2703787.

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