Archival Activism: Independent and Community-led Archives… by Andrew Flinn

Excerpts from Archival Activism: Independent and Community-led Archives, Radical Public History and the Heritage Professions by Andrew Flinn. Published by the InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 7(2)

Following Benedict Anderson’s (1983) description of the imagined community underpinned by myths, foundational narratives, and historical performances, archives and the histories that are made from them play an important role in the forming and supporting of collective memory and community identification. Hall (2000) and others (Flinn, 2008; Gilroy, 2004) look forward to post-identity, post-national societies, stressing notions of identification that are multiple, fluid, and ever-changing (always becoming) in relation to both the past and the present and that leave behind more fixed and reified identity formations. However, there is also a recognition of the requirement to confront the present absences in national histories and the importance of the “imaginative rediscovery” of hidden histories and essentialized identity histories which, while necessarily mythic in the sense of “being,” also have great power as a pragmatic tool for challenging these partial narratives, unifying social groups, and mobilizing social movements to bring about desired political and social transformations.

In the context of the role that history can play in supporting these struggles and movements, the writings of another new left historian, Raphael Samuel, are also very instructive. Samuel (1994, p. 8) sought to promote non-professional, community, and collaborative history-making, making the famous observation that history was a social form of knowledge, the work not of one individual but of a thousand hands. Following both Hall and Samuel, it seems clear that independent community-led archives may have significant roles to play in the production of these democratized and more inclusive histories. The very existence of these independent archives, operating outside the framework of mainstream, publicly funded, professionally staffed institutions is both a reproach and a challenge to that mainstream. As Hall (2001) wrote when marking the establishment of the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive, that in the context of those archives and histories that have been consistently ignored or underrepresented within mainstream collections then the “activity of ‘archiving’ is thus always a critical one, always a historically located one, always a contestatory one”

Ultimately, in this context, although we are not disinterested in whether such histories might be said to be wholly “accurate” or not, we are really more interested in how such histories are put to use (for good or for ill), what impact they have on those who engage with them, and how they intersect and revise individual and collective community memory. (page 4-5)

However, the real distinction lies not with whether the project is locally focused or otherwise, but whether it is primarily motivated by the desire to celebrate and recover every voice or whether the project, in a critical sense, wishes to go further by exploring areas of difficulty and complexity in the group’s or community’s history, histories that might challenge the community as well as reinforce any preconceptions about identity. Celebratory histories of achievement and recovery are important, even valuable when such stories have been previously ignored or misrepresented, but ultimately they are rather limited, taking independent archives and radical history-making only so far. Those archives and history-making activities which go beyond this and build upon the acts of recovery, offer something more compelling, discursive, and ultimately more impactful, perhaps representing the shift identified by Hall from the expressive relations of representation to more formative and subjective politics of representation (Hall, 2003). (page 11)

When informed by a clear political agenda and perspective, the capturing of oral histories and community memories can be used to empower the community in challenging the narratives that are falsely representing them and may be used against them. In the case of both the Isle of Dogs Island History Trust in London and the Cardiff Butetown Community History and Arts project, the histories of two threatened and misrepresented dockland communities were captured and utilized by academic activists (or activists with an academic background) steeped in radical politics and history practice as part of an effort to challenge the threats to those communities. (page 12)
Similarly, at Eastside Community History Geoff Bell, a historian of British and Irish labor history, brought a similar set of skills and priorities to recording the stories of East London’s working classes. In all three cases, these endeavors were working with communities threatened by change and dislocation, and all saw their work not just as preserving the memories of communities that were being broken up by redevelopment but also as part of collective and collaborative strategies that might help a community resist or mitigate some of those changes. In this context, such acts of historical recovery are not just an academic or even a leisure activity; they are also informed by a political understanding of how this material and doing this type of activity might help people and communities in their contemporary lives and struggles. (page 13)

Recognizing independent archives and heritage activities as a resource for education, employing a “usable past” as a tool in contemporary struggles or in challenging some of the harmful effects of the absence of (for instance) black history in the school curriculum and national heritage narratives locates these independent and community-led archives as sites of resistance against injustices in society. (page 13)

Some of these archives producing oppositional histories and acting as sites or spaces of resistance seek to create what might be referred to as “useful” history. That is, not history produced by and for disinterested academic research but rather archives and history that are explicitly intended to be used to support the achievement of political objectives and mobilization, as a means of inspiring action and cementing solidarity. As Howard Zinn wrote in the introduction to Voices of a People’s History of the United States “to omit or to minimize these voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations” and conversely radical, popular, politically-engaged histories demonstrate that “people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women—once they organize and protest and create movements—have a voice no government can suppress” (Zinn & Arnove, 2004, p. 28). (page 14)

History-making and archiving are therefore never neutral or disinterested activities, but in the case of long-established projects and archives, such as the Working-Class Movement Library in Salford, the Black Cultural Archives in London, the Butetown History and Arts Centre in Cardiff, or the Lesbian Herstory Archive in New York, it is the continuity, not ruptures or a shift away from political activism, that best explains the energy and physical resources pledged over a sustained period by successive groups of activists. In reflecting on her commitment to archival work in terms of the continuities with her anti-racist and anti-imperialist activism, one of the founding members of Future Histories (interviews, 2009) described the political power embedded in the archival act:
I realized that actually to decide to gather information, organize information, and preserve information to disseminate it, was a political act. And so, Future Histories for me was my political intervention in the social and cultural arena of the arts in the UK. (page 15)

However, possible areas of collaboration and sharing might include, from the professional side, expertise and guidance with regard to preservation (digital and analogue), storage, cataloguing, sharing space, and skills around exhibitions and public engagement activities and, from the independent archivists, subject-based knowledge, access to new collections and materials for exhibitions, and the possibility of new audiences. Crucially, these relationships should be seen not as short-term one-off exercises but as sustained ones in which trust and mutual respect are fostered not just between individuals (who will eventually move on) but also between institutions. (page 17)

Rather than re-asserting narrow professional values, archivists and other heritage workers should seek to open up their services to a more participatory approach where different methods of custody and management, and different views of archival practice, and of collection and value are considered and embraced. In order to retain and enhance their status as trusted sites of information and memory, archives must justify their existence by working with others and offering their expertise in support of independent activity, helping to sustain different archival initiatives in the home or in communities. If archives and other memory sites are to offer important spaces for engaging with potentially positive and empowering conversations about personal and collective identifications and promote notions of belonging, then these conversations need to be inclusive rather than exclusive and sometimes uncomfortable and disrupting rather than safe and superficial. (page 17-18)

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