English and Drama blog

18 November 2012

'Just a name on a list'? Archives: traces of the past, guarantor of the future

I was lucky this week to be invited by the French Culture Ministry to take part in a series of hugely rich workshops around the theme of archives and their role in society, coordinated by the marvelous, and indefatigable, Jean-Pierre Defrance from the Directorate General for Heritage. I was the representative from the UK, alongside a wonderful range of colleagues from all over Western and Eastern Europe, for the most part directors of national or regional archives, as well as some colleagues from NGOs.P1010115

Coming from a background of literary archives - of writers, poets, publishers - I have often had a particular perspective on the relationship between archives and the societies they record, describe, or imagine. Many of the sessions this week covered slightly different stakes: whether archives of former Soviet republics, of World War I combatants, or Jewish children hidden during the Occupation of France...the importance and impact of archives in good governance; in personal and political memorialisation, reconciliation, and validation; can be both harrowing and humbling.

One of the themes that ran across the discussions was the significance of the place of archives in governmental structures - and the consequences of coming under Culture Ministries, or not. Many felt that incorporation in structures concerned with cultural patrimony might sometimes elide the crucial, active role of archives as lever for, and guarantor of, human rights and good governance, with several examples taken from processes of democratic transition, and disaster recovery.

In terms of the literal place of archives and society, it was interesting to speculate on the impact of the imminent moves of France's own National Archives. Currently housed in the Marais (and at Fontainebleau), a new site will open early 2013 in Pierrefitte, Pierrefitte a commune in the Seine-Saint-Denis department; an imaginative distance from the grandeur of the Hotel de Soubise ...resolutely extra muros (though conveniently located next to the terminus of Line 13, with an extension of Line 14 to come soon). A new signature building, with the aesthetic impact you'd expect of a contemporary art museum (the public art onsite includes a new work by Antony Gormley), it is surrounded by both HLMs, and a University campus ....suggesting interesting new collaborations, users, and employment prospects for the quarter.

I was happy to be able to share our work in the UK around the documentary commemoration of the forthcoming 1914 anniversary (including our work with Europeana on the Collections 1914-18 mass digitisation project) when we visited the wonderful new Museum of the Great War in Meaux- a spectacular contemporary building housing a collection of objects and documents put together by a private collector. The Museum has had a huge impact on visitors to Meaux (50kms from Paris), and is, in my opinion, developing innovative collaborations with nearby Disneyland. Walt was in France as an ambulance driver in 1918, and I was fascinated by the way the Museum and Disneyland have had the imagination to realize that apparently heterogenous 'attractions' have a huge amount to offer each other.

The most moving presentation this week was from Yoram Mouchenik, psychologist-psychotherapist at the University of Paris XIII. Yoram talked about his work with a group who, as Jewish children, had been hidden during the Occupation. The subject was taboo in the immediate post-War years: what Yoram described as a 'freezing of memory' meant that the official  status of deported French Jews was listed as 'missing', as if people had simply vanished, evaporated. When new laws were introduced to provide compensation  and pensions for those who had been hidden during the War, and whose property had been confiscated, archives became key to establishing proof. But of course, as the subject began to be opened up, Yoram described how archival research offered a personal reinsertion into a genealogical line - a re-filiation. Archival work became a form of substitution, or compensation, for family conversations that were too painful, or simply impossible, to have ever happened. The most poignant quote from a member of the group that Yoram worked with was a man who described how he 'was looking for his father on microfilm'. The title of Yoram's book sums it up: Ce n'est qu'un nom sur une liste, mais c'est mon cimitière (It's just a name on a list, but it's my cemetery)...and of course archivists themselves cannot be immune from the affective forces that inform this kind of archival work.

The vastly diverse world in which archives operate was brought home to me the evening after this talk- when I popped by the Sotheby's Paris viewing of their forthcoming sales. It's fun looking at the liggers, the lapdogs, and the Lots: that included manuscripts of everything from Serge Gainsbourg's crisply arranged lyrics, to historical letters. The sale rooms are a vital part of the circulation and transmission of original documents, but it's important to be reminded how the sometimes astounding number of zeroes in the estimates listed in the auction catalogue are but a tiny part of the value of archival heritage.


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