Archive for the ‘Talking points’ Category

Launch of Black Cultural Archives catalogue

May 29, 2009

Last week I attended a celebration and launch event for the Black Cultural Archives. It was a momentous, and very joyous occasion, honouring the contribution of so many individuals to the work of the archives (in particular on this occasion the women involved in the Black women’s movement oral history project) and marking a real milestone: the opening up of the collections to visitors and the launch of the online catalogue.

This is what it looks like (in slightly squashed form – sorry):

Screen shot of BCA catalogue 29 May 2009

Happy browsing!

Meanwhile, if this has really caught your imagination, the BCA is currently recruiting a collections manager to take the project through to the next stage. More details here.


Community Archives: the view from Canada

May 20, 2009

I attended an excellent conference in Calgary, Canada, 14-18 May, offered by the Association of Canadian Archivists. There is great interest in community archives and identities in Canada, in particular associated with the treatment of people from the First Nations. One very controversial issue is around the management of Residential Schools run by churches on behalf of the state from 1880 to 1960s. It is complicated, involving claims of abuse, missing children, loss of cultural identity, class actions. Lots of church archives are being kept very busy finding records relating to individuals. Lots of the issues seemed to me to have an overlap with the UCL research into community archives and identities, although from a different perspective.

One thing though is the terminology: ‘community archives’ to them means, the archives of a local community ie a geographic area such as a town, whose archives will go to the Provincial Archives, so they don’t understand why ‘community archives’ has any link to this First Nations archive discussion. Of course, I spoke up but understanding will be greater when more of the project publications come out.
They are having a Truth and Reconciliation Commission now, which is setting up a TRC research and documentation centre, which raises issues about the nature of the record, whether it is real or virtual centre, where the records come from and whose they are, what models of curation, how it overlaps with museum, oral history etc. I think the ideas here from the project on curation models would really help them.

Elizabeth Shepherd

Genealogy: ‘an exercise in self-congratulation’?

January 14, 2009

There’s a provocative article by Zoe Williams in today’s Guardian on genealogy, prompted by the publication online of the 1911 census. In it, she argues:

Say what you like about historical context, understanding the past by particularising and personalising it, but it’s still all about you. You spend your day being you, and your leisure time researching what makes you so essentially you-like.

Could one also make the case for researching and documenting the history of a particular community? Well, possibly, but Williams fails to consider both the importance of conducting this kind of research work, either individually or collectively for people who for whatever reason feel they have been denied a sense of a past. Being able to construct a coherent life story narrative can also be very valuable for mental well-being. As the comments on comment board suggest, perhaps such a dismissive attitude towards family history research is also a luxury that not all can afford…


Study day on ‘immigration archives’ (in French)

October 3, 2008

Title: Study day on ‘immigration archives’ (in French)
Location: Archives et Bibliothèque départementales Gaston Defferre, 18-20 rue Mirès, Marseille
Description: I missed this study day but it’s interesting to note what’s going on in France. The terminology is particularly interesting. Rather than ‘community archives’ in France the focus is on ‘immigration archives’ i.e. archives that document the arrival and subsequent history in France of different communities. What would the consequences be if we applied this terminology in the UK? The problem of course is that it risks defining members of diverse communities permanently as ‘immigrants’ i.e. perpetual outsiders. It creates difficulties in talking about populations who held the nationality of the host nation at the time of their arrival, e.g. migrants from the Caribbean. What would the impact be on visual and performing arts archives?

The programme for the study day (in French) is available here.
Date: 2008-09-26


Black-only schools a solution to the ‘identity’ crisis?

September 12, 2008

On Wednesday night Radio 4’s The Moral Maze programme, picked up on a story from the Evening Standard: Lee Jasper’s call for black-only schools to combat low teacher expectations of black kids (especially boys) in mainstream schools and creative ‘inclusive beacons of black academic excellence’.

This is not the first time Lee Jasper has floated this idea, as a quick browse of the web reveals (see this profile on Black in Britain). Moreover, according to one commentator on Iain Dale’s blog the idea has already been tried in Tottenham and found seriously wanting.

Some interesting points arise for us from this debate.
1) The loose use of the term ‘identity’. Michael Buerk introduced The Moral Maze debate by stating that black-only schools might give young people a ‘sense of identity’. As so often this was posited unequivocally as a social good. But during the debate the speakers were able to construe the same term negatively: a sense of identity was presented a a divisive force, at odds with social cohesion. This for me is further confirmation of the idea that identity, unless very carefully defined, is too ambiguous as an analytic category to be of much use.

2) The lack of empirical evidence. On what is Lee Jasper’s assertion that there is a correlation between taking pride in one’s identity (and it is questionable whether a segregated education system would indeed foster pride…) and academic achievement? If such data existed then it could be used to support the argument for independent black community archives. But where can we find this data? There may be some literature buried in psychology research journals but I have yet to find much (and perhaps I’m not looking in the right places) that really makes this case in a convincing way in mainstream social science. All pointers gratefully received!

3) Where does the supplementary school movement fit in to all of this? Surely that’s a good half-way house? And, more to the point, perhaps community archives and their outreach activities can help generate some of the outcomes Jasper seeks – addressing negative assumptions on the part of teachers ignorant of a history of black achievement in this country, boosting self-esteem and providing role models for young people – without going to the extremes he suggests.


New online participatory archive and some thoughts about virtual archives

September 12, 2008

The launch of a new website The Times of My Life has just been announced.

Its claims are grandiose (and not just in the tag line…):

The Times of My Life is a ground-breaking website which is set to create a revolution in the way we record our historical past. It will be one of the first ever websites specifically designed to allow users to record first hand accounts of their lives through text, images and video.

Social networking sites have become common place and eight out of ten people who are members of these sites go directly to them when turning on their computers. The Times of My Life is a social networking site and historical reference library rolled into one.

There are other issues with the site; there’s an argument to suggest that the eleven key moments selected, even if by popular vote, present a very narrow and exclusive version of key moments in British history. Why not make some suggestions but let people suggest their own topic areas? It’s a little hard to tell who’s behind the the site as well. There is clearly a grassroots drive (see about us) but but it would be interesting to know more about the ‘academics and IT, web and Media experts’ now backing the site.

But, hyperbole aside, archive theorists and public historians, ourselves included, will be watching with interest how the site develops. When our research project was devised we thoroughly expected to find a lot more of this sort of thing: sites that combined social networking technology and the interest in genealogy/community history, especially in diasporic communities. To our surprise, we didn’t find as much evidence of this as we had hoped. We would still be delighted to hear about examples of any such projects, particularly in so far as they concern diasporic groups. We’d also be keen to know about any research projects exploring this phenomenon; media anthropology is where I’d expect to find such things, as I think there you might find people with interests in both the technology and the dynamics of the human interaction, but does anyone have any examples? But in the meantime, perhaps the virtual community archive (if indeed ‘The Times of My Life’ can be described as a ‘community’ archive?) is beginning to catch on?

From a theoretical point of view I am also fascinated by the explicit links to death (of the founder’s mother) and the kind of redemptive language that appears on the website. It has long been argued that one of the reasons for the continued draw of museums and historic sites (and physical archives) is that they give people something stable (or perceived as stable) to latch on to in an age where the compression of space-time (through the Internet etc.) seems to be resulting in a feeling of loss of control for individuals (I’m thinking of Andreas Huyssen’s Twilight Memories for example). But if the idea of ‘leaving a legacy’ can be transferred to a digital platform perhaps some of this theory needs to be rethought?

Anyone interested in these issues might also consider submitting a proposal to the 2009 Digital Humanities conference (taking place in Maryland, USA), for which our own board member and colleague, Claire Warwick, is the programme chair.


Principles of ‘Radical Archiving’

July 14, 2008

I have been recently re-reading the South African book Refiguring the Archive edited by Carolyn Hamilton et al (New Africa Book, 2002) and I came across a reference that I must have missed before. In Graham Reid’s chapter on the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa is an account of New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archives (pp201-3), including a reference in a note to the Archives’ commitment to principles of ‘radical archiving’ that they had themselves devised. Although differing slightly from the principles as printed in Reid’s account, these radical principles based on a commitment to independence and autonomy appear on the LHA website thus:

Principles: Many of the Archives’ principles are a radical departure from conventional archival practices. They are inclusive and non-institutional and reveal the Archives’ commitment to living history, to housing the past along with the present. Among the basic principles guiding the Archives are:

  • All Lesbian women must have access to the Archives; no academic, political, or sexual credentials will be required for use of the collection; race and class must be no barrier for use or inclusion.
  • The Archives shall be housed within the community, not on an academic campus that is by definition closed to many women.
  • The Archives shall be involved in the political struggles of all Lesbians.
  • Archival skills shall be taught, one generation of Lesbians to another, breaking the elitism of traditional archives.
  • The community should share in the work of the Archives.
  • Funding shall be sought from within the communities the Archives serves, rather than from outside sources.
  • The community should share in the work of the Archives.
  • The Archives will always have a caretaker living in it so that it will always be someone’s home rather than an institution.
  • The Archives will never be sold nor will its contents be divided.

Now not everybody involved in a community archive would want to sign up to all of these points and remain totally independent but I guess there are many principles here people would feel very comfortable with. If anyone is interested in reading more, an account of the LHA’s early years can be found in Joan Nestle, ‘The Will to Remember: the Lesbian Herstory Archives of New York’ in Feminist Review 34 (Spring 1990).


Heritage and wellbeing workshop, or can heritage heal?

July 4, 2008

On Wednesday 25 June 2008 a very well attended workshop on the relationship between heritage and wellbeing took place under the auspices of new UCL centre for museums, heritage and material culture studies.

The aim of the workshop was to bring together those interested in the broad topic of ‘heritage and wellbeing’, including medical professionals, researchers, arts curators, and museum, library and archive workers to work towards the creation of a critical framework for assessing wellbeing in the context of heritage. The background to this seminar was an ongoing research project jointly run by UCL Museums and Collections and UCL Hospitals to exploring the potential benefits of museum object-handling sessions for patients and visitors.

UCL museums loan box

A UCL Museums loan box, of the sort taken out into the hospitals. For more info visit the UCL Museums and Collections site.

This is clearly an exciting area for research, not least because many of the presenters contrasted their own anecdotal experience of the positive impact of contact with heritage materials with the lack of research data to support their case, or even to provide a more nuanced understanding of when such interventions may or may not be appropriate.

The vast majority of the presentations related to museums and material culture, which suggests that there is scope for archivists to get more involved in this discussion. One very notable exception was Judith Etherton, Borough Archivist, Valence House Museum (Barking and Dagenham) whose fascinating talk explored how archivists can better support people doing genealogical research, many of whom are doing it not as a leisure pursuit but as a means to provide answers to traumatic episodes in their past (such as adoption). Similarly, archivists can act as facilitators for terminally ill parents compiling ‘memory boxes’ for their children, by directing them towards sources of information about their family and their neighbourhood but also by offering advice on conservation techniques which can ensure that precious letters and photos intended to be opened as some future date (a child’s 18th birthday, for example) are kept safe until they are needed. In short, “therapists know that sense of place and sense of belonging are key components of sound mental health” and archivists are uniquely placed to deliver this. You can read more about Judith’s research here (if you or your library has online access to the journals).

Some of the later speakers took on the them in more general terms and sounded notes of caution. Beverley Butler questioned whether there has been a shift from thinking about the past as a redemptive force in theological sense to the idea of heritage as therapy and, if so, what the implications of this might be (heritage as quick fix for social or economic deprivation, for example). And, drawing on material from fieldwork with older people in Haringey, Mike Rowlands sought to underline the extent to which there is always an element of choice in heritage; we choose how we wish to tell our stories what objects and documents we wish to carry through life with us, even if we can no longer determine what has happened to us. Any notion of heritage as therapy needs to bear this in mind; heritage, like memory, is always already a ‘strategy’, not something pre-determined and fixed, waiting to be unearthed by therapist-heritage professional.

One of the questions that I came away with was the issue of the extent to which it is possible to scale this work and these findings up from the individual to the collective. Is there such a thing as “community wellbeing” (the government would, I feel, certainly like there to be) and if so who decides how the community feels? If it is a useful concept, then what role might archives play in fostering it? And, critically, how would we devise a methodology to assess this link?


Book review: ‘Museums and Community’ by Elizabeth Crooke

July 3, 2008

Museums and Communities, Elizabeth Crooke, front coverI have just finished reading Museums and Community: Ideas, issues and challenges by Elizabeth Crooke (Routledge, 2007). Crooke is a senior lecture in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Ulster and as a consequence she brings to her research a sophisiticated understanding of the contested nature of ‘community’ in Northern Ireland. Whilst the book recognises the potential value in developing strong communities as part of a social inclusion agenda and the role that the heritage sector can play in this she retains a healthy scepticism, given equal weight to the criticism that ‘community’ developments policies may also be divisive and exclusive.

Her analysis of the emergence of the ‘community’ agenda in government policy is interesting, but perhaps most useful from our point of view is the way she seeks to unpick all the competing and sometimes contradictory concepts that are bound up in this one word. She identifies three strands in public discourse around community:

  1. An academic strand, where researchers are interested in exploring the way an idea of community is developed through symbolic action. This area of study is perhaps of most theoretical relevance to heritage practitioners.
  2. A public policy strand, which takes the value of community for granted and uses it as a tool for local and national government (this thinking also impacts on the heritage practioners, since it is important to understand what is at stake when subscribing to particular policy agendas)
  3. An action-research strand, that builds on the first strand to develop the idea of community as a form of social action, and a mode of resistance to various forms of hegemony.

It is immediately obvious that whilst empowered communities (as imagined in three) can be seen as underpinning democracy by providing a framework for collective action and managed conflict, there is also clearly potential for conflict between two and three, which roughly translates into a clash between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ policy making.

Understanding these different strands is useful in terms of thinking about whose interests are best served by the promotion of the ‘community archives’ sector. Is promoting community heritage a cheap way to generate a feel-good factor without having to address the root causes of discrimination and exclusion (such as poverty)? Or is it a way to strengthen democractic participation?

In addition, she draws on Hugh Butcher’s work (‘Introduction’ to eds. Butcher, H., A. Glen, P. Henderson and J. Smith (1993) Community and Public Policy. London: Pluto Press) to explore the idea of community as process, and as a term than covers a whole range of different levels of engagement. In short, Butcher identifies a ‘descriptive community’, ‘community as value’ and ‘active community’:

The concept of a descriptive community relates to the idea of a network of people who have something in common, either through a sense of belonging, such as a community of interest, or by identifying with certain references, like a shared territory for example. The second use of the term relates to the values associated with the concept that can be actively nurtured, such as solidarity, communal aid and connectivity. The active community relates to social initiatives that aim to develop community strengths and capacities. (Crooke 2008: 31).

One way of thinking about community archives is about seeing them as levers for effecting a change of level. A community archive can bring together a group of people who may not even realise they have something in common or where there are few existing links, fostering a self-aware descriptive community. Here what is important is the symbolic value of the archive: the the material collected represents a community to itself, bringing into existence. Once this community is brought into being – or if it already exists – then participation in the community archive is what matters: working together on a project, particularly if grounded in shared values and/or shared experience – for example a history of political protest, can generate a ‘community as value’. And the ‘active community’ is often the ultimate goal and in some cases the community archive may – as an ongoing process – become redundant, as other causes take over. As Crooke concludes, ‘When communities forge heritage projects they may be important to galvanise the group, but once the community gathers momentum the need for such initiatives will lessen’ (p.134).

Underlying this argument is a strong sense of the link between insecurity and community, and specifically community heritage: we need to feel we belong because we feel threatened (an idea Crooke backs up with reference to Zygmunt Bauman). But who are we leaving out when we say ‘we’?


Talking point: Appropriate terminology

May 6, 2008

One of issues that has come up in discussion with one of our case studies is the question of appropriate terminology: how should we talk about what we, in our project outline, have labelled ‘BME communities’? This term is currently being contested on two fronts, from those who think it should be expanded to ‘BAME’ (Black & Asian Minority Ethnic) and those who want to see it binned altogether. The term is basically a bureaucratic shorthand; local councils (and grant-giving bodies, for that matter) use it to mean… well, what exactly? An awful lot of the time I think it is used to mean people-with-darker-skin-not-like-us (‘us’ being ‘the people who run this show’, in whatever context). It is also a way of labelling a group of people who, broadly speaking, suffer from a range of forms of social and economic disadvantage arising from both indirect structural and structural discrimination. So it can be very useful, but it’s not exactly empowering. But not to have a label for communities of different ethnic or ‘racial’ background is however equally problematic; culturally diverse groups soon become invisible and the spiral of discrimination and marginalisation continues (as is arguably the case in France – I’ve written about this before here and here, see also this article from the BBC).

Appropriate terminology – or in other words how to describe people and things – is a major issue for archivists, so it’s important for us to be having this discussion about our own research practice. The Community Archives group uses the term Black, Minority and Ethnic Communities (do the comma and the ‘and’ make it worse or better?) and since things only get listed once in their otherwise very useful directory this would seem to suggest that BME community archives (that handy shorthand again) are not or cannot also be ‘special interest communities‘ or ‘national collections‘.

So… what terms should be using? ‘Communities with culturally diverse origins’? (but then isn’t that so broad as to be almost useless?) ‘Black and other diasporic communities’? I look forward to reading your suggestions.