Posts Tagged ‘Greek refugees’

Refoming memory work to reform memory: an early example of a radical community archive?

August 5, 2008

I have just read a fascinating essay by the Greek anthropologist Penelope Papailias: ‘Writing Home in the Archive: “Refugee Memory” and the Ethnography of Documentation’ in Blouin F.X., & Rosenberg W.G. (2006) Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (pp.402-416). Apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, what is so fascinating about this article is that it encourages us to rethink our definitions of ‘community archives’.

The essay concerns the private archive of a Greek aristocrat Melpo Logotheti-Merlier. The archive, known as the Centre for Asia Minor Studies was established with the aim of “salvaging” the history and culture of the Greek Orthodox community of Anatolia, expelled from modern-day Turkey in 1922 [wikipedia entry on Greek Refugees]. The archive, which interestingly was supported by the French state until 1963, aimed to gather both the documentary evidence of this community and, arguably for the first time, oral testimony from the refugees themselves.

The archive probably does not meet narrower definitions of a ‘community archive’ since those who collected the material were not themselves refugees (although I may be wrong – Papailias does not go into a great deal of detail about this). Merlier and her team of researchers mostly also mostly belonged to the elite, educated classes, unlike many (although not all) of the refugees. Despite its independence from the state the archive thus preserved many of the characteristics of the archive as a technology of ordering and disciplining; informant testimony was coralled into certain acceptable forms (the interview schedule) in order to be stamped, catalogued and filed.

Nevertheless, there are many parallels between the archive’s methodological radicalism and today’s community archives (indeed, the essay is concerned with revealing ‘aspects of the relationship of dominant archival cultures to peripheral ones’ (p.413)). As Papailias argues,

‘Reform of cultural memory usually cannot proceed without reform of memory work itself. In addition to disputing national narratives of Greek history, the center also critiqued the methods of Greek academic history and folklore. Given the politically conservative state of the Greek university at this time, true scholarship, Merlier might have argued, could only thrive outside of the academy […]’ (p.404)

Might not today’s community archives be seen as ‘reforming memory work’ in order to ‘reform cultural memory’? And changing archival practice from the outside?

There are also some interesting parallels with regard to the conjunction of the private and the public/professional. Merlier struggled to have her activities recognised as ‘work’, something Papailias attributes to the gendering of historical practice which tends to see the work of men in or on the archives as serious research and the work of women as a leisure activity. (Similar tensions perhaps exist today between public sector archivists and their community-based counterparts). One reason for this is that Merlier divided much of her time between Athens and France/Switzerland and often directed operations from cafés and other temporary sites (reminding me of meetings with participants in this study in all sorts of informal locations, from cafés to their own homes). According to Papailias,

‘The determination [of Merlier] to call her letters [to her staff] work, as well as to do work in spaces of leisure, seems to have reflected her own difficulties in defining what she was doing in the absence of institutional structures. As Merlier seemed aware, the “personal” nature of this archive made it vulnerable to critique as the amateur project of a “lady of leisure”.’ (p.408)

Today’s community archivists often experience very similar pressures; the time they commit to free for a project they feel passionately about may well not be valued or appreciated in their wider personal and professional life, leading to a decline in self-esteem even as they are supporting an activity that they see as enhancing community well-being.

Papailias concludes on the following note (try substituting ‘community’ for ‘private’ in the next extract…):

‘Private archives are not outside of or irrelevant to discussions of state archives; they are important sites in which social actors actively construct their relationship to the state, assimilating its categories of identification or challenging them.’ (p.413)

It is precisely this idea of the (independent) archive as the site where a struggle over identity is played out that makes community archives such fascinating and potentially radical cultural spaces. Papailias also here expresses a justification for a focus on what may emerge as a research theme: the relationship between the mainstream institutions – state archives for example – and community archives. For it is in these struggles that identities are assigned, shaken off or given form.

Above all her research (like ours?) draws attention to the ‘desire and fantasies, fulfilled or not, that both propel the original making of archives and drive their ongoing physical and conceptual reordering’ (p.413). Ethnography (whether textual/historical like her own, or observation-based and present like ours, presumably) is the best way of getting at these desires since it is a way of drawing attention to the process of the production of historical knowledge (rather than just to the resulting paradigm shifts). With regard to the Centre for Asia Minor Studies, ‘[textual] ethnography examines the construction of rhetorical forms and social relations. In the case of the center, producing and archiving documents enacted a complex mobilization of social actors and chronotopes’ (p.414).

What is extraordinary about the Centre for Asia Minor Studies is its very early preoccupation with collating witness testimony. This, I suggest, is what situates it between a private collection and a community archive. Are there any other examples of early independent archives that operated in a similar way, or that drew on the collective experiences of a community to challenge a dominant historiographical framework (in this case the forgetting of a painful and shameful episode of the national past)?