Thursday, 14 March 2013

Forgetting to Remember

Last night I attended the annual Jenkinson lecture at UCL, which was delivered by Simmons College's Professor Jeannette Bastian.  Her title was 'Forgetting to Remember: Archivists and the Memory Imperative.'  Now I had no idea what this talk was going to be about and I vaguely entertained the notion of a discussion on oral history or the function of an archive.  But, what Professor Bastian discussed was a much more detailed and niche concept of memory studies and how collective memory can be archived for generations to come.

elephant ears. by brittanyhock, on Flickr
Are we like elephants?

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  brittanyhock 

An important distinction should be made between history and memory.  Archivists traditionally chase after history i.e. knowledge of the past.  The archivist is interested in the record of what actually happened in order to make a linear account of past events.  Memory, however, is a more 'rounded' concept and is the residue left by the past.  This residue can be material for promoting integrated knowledge, social identity and the formation of group consciousness.

The whole concept of memory study revolves around the recording of every aspect of a culture: commemorations, memorials, rituals, food, oral history, events etc.  These are not traditionally recorded in an archive since they are not texts.  But it is high time that archivists embraced the variety of formats in order to protect these fragile memories.

Elephant Sunset by Brendon Cremer, on Flickr
I just read a book called 'The Elephant Keeper' -
isn't is weird how things all fall together
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Brendon Cremer 

Archives have always been related to memory as the mantra of the Library and Archives Canada, which 'serves as the continuing memory of the Government of Canada and its institutions' shows.  Archivists are known as the keepers of memories and have a prominent role in decisions concerning what should be kept (remembered) and what should be allowed to be lost (forgotten).  Archives, therefore, could be considered as the triggers of memory rather the memories themselves.  Professor Bastian made an excellent comment when she stated that memory can act as a lens through which archives can be viewed.

I have to admit that I felt quite out of my depth during the lecture since this is something on which I have only lightly touched but it was really interesting to see how it relates to my limited experiences, in my brief career thus far.  When I was in Syracuse I worked on a grant application for the conservation of the Karen community from Burma.  I wrote a documentation strategy for an oral history project and this is the sort of community archive that Professor Bastian was talking about.  But she would take it further, creating a living archive.  She showed us the John Cage archive, which the NYPL has recently published online and it is doing a great job of including works, which have been created using John Cage's music as inspiration   Anyone can upload content and it is truly an example of an archive being at the centre of the creative loop.  Similarly, in theatre archives I have come across students using the archive to create new work.  The University of Bristol Theatre Collections have a couple of students each year working on new creations from the archive.

Babar and Family by TattyBones, on Flickr
My favourite elephants

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  TattyBones 

Community archives don't come without their issues, though.  The community is a record creating entity but it is also the memory frame which contextualises what it records (if you can get your mind round that then you're a better person than me).  Communities have shared pasts and so collective memory is something that requires a lot of work to record - you cannot merely interview one person and get the oral history of a whole community.  This post does not do Professor Bastian's lecture justice but I really found it an interesting concept and I hope that more archivists sit up and take notice and adopt the 'creative will and imagination' that she calls for.

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