There is a slogan, popularised by the anti-globalisation movement, already commonly deployed in the lexicon of social movements militancy, which states: ‘another world is possible.’ But is another archive possible?
There are archives that are created from material that, in principle, are not the object of archival science, but become so due to special circumstances – such as a terrorist attack or a social movement that takes on special relevance. This type of archive generates debate amongst critical archival professionals, who consider such materials to be closer to museum collections than actual archives. Archival science has not yet dealt with this subject in a global way, although some specific comments have been published. For my part, I have tried to answer basic questions about these archives: what are they, when were they formed, who managed them, what do they contain, how have they been treated, where have they been deposited, and what are they used for?
‘Think global, act local’ is another popular anti-globalisation slogan. In this research, we have inverted the processes, first studying concrete examples in order to arrive at more general reflections.
What are they?
Two categories can be distinguished. On the one hand, there are the archives created as a result of traumatic events, generally terrorist attacks. This is the case for the so-called “Archive of Mourning” resulting from the terrorist attack in Madrid on 11 March 2004, the September 11 Documentary Project, and those created from attacks in Paris (Bataclan concert hall and Charlie Hebdo), as well as terrorism in London, Nice, Brussels and Boston.
The second category corresponds to the archives that emerged as a consequence of the mobilisation of citizen indignation against the political class, and demand for participative democracy. For example: the 15th of May Archive in Madrid (very similar in nature to the Occupy Wall Street Archives); the Nunca Mais (Never Again) Archive, which arose as a result of the oil slick caused by the sinking of an oil tanker; the Arab Spring Archives; and the General Archive of the Student Movement of Chile.
From the first day of the attacks or mobilisations, objects of all kinds are generated and placed in the streets; displays of rejection and condolences initially, and vindictive material subsquently. At the same time, a need to compile both photographic and oral testimonies of the events begins to arise. This period for the ‘creation’ of the archive has a variable duration. It can range from a year, as in the case of the 11th of May in Madrid, to just a few days – for example, as in the case of Nice, which, by the way, generated complaints on the part of the population. After that date, on the occasion of the following anniversaries, objects are often still deposited, but they are usually no longer part of the collection.
The main creators of these fonds are the citizens, who create, produce and deposit the objects. From then on, it is usually the town councils (in the case of mourning archives) that collect the material, or the organisations that have suffered during the attacks, such as the Spanish Railway Company in the case of the 11th of May archive. This is often done at the request of research and archival professionals, together with volunteers. In the case of demands movements, it is usually one of their own branches of commision, the archive commission, which is responsible for the collection, organisation, custody and dissemination of all the material that is being produced.
The archives consist of an enormous variety of physical materials. The contributors are heterogeneous and so are the contributions, with sizes ranging from a the dimensions of a post-it to a five-meter banner, and include three-dimensional objects. They range from the most traditional paper documents: banners, slogans, minutes of assemblies, pamphlets, announcements, press clippings, various resolutions – in the case of demand archives; to letters of support, poems, diaries, cards, books, and prints – in archives resulting from the attacks. In addition to objects of various formats and textures, such as flowers, dolls, buttons, and textiles, there are also: digital documents, born-digital photographs, digital images, digital moving image formats, archived web sites, and compact discs with electronic messages. Finally, there include: photographs of how the objects were arranged; of the graffiti, which obviously cannot be preserved; and sound and audio-visual recordings of the testimonies of those who, directly or indirectly, had lived though the events.
At first there is a situation of confusion, due to the accumulation of objects and the need for the authorities to remove them and reopen the streets occupied for one reason or another. Many times the cleaning personnel put everything in garbage bags. Many documents are wet, stained with candle wax – and even partially burnt; due to the precarious states of such materials, their exposure to the elements, and their continuous movements from one place to another, they need to be restored. From there, begins the work of identification, classification, description, and often digitisation, of the fonds.
The first base for these archives is undoubtedly the public space: the stations and streets that were the object of the attacks, or the squares occupied by the indignant movements. As soon as these spaces are vacated, they usually spend some time as an improvised storage site for the fonds. This place is generally an archive, as in the case of London, Nice and Madrid; a self-managed social centre, which happened for the 15th of May; or a private archive company, as in the Boston case. In some cases, as in Paris, the three-dimensional objects are conserved in a Museum (Carnavalet).
The primary objective would be to collect the collective expressions, produced spontaneously, that bear witness to an essential event in present history, where citizens express their feelings, their discomfort, their pain, their repulsion, or their solidarity. In the meantime, the professional teams seek to preserve, describe and digitise these documents, with the ultimate aim of making them accessible to the public and to research. There is another objective, let’s say moral: that the most ephemeral voices of citizenship are collected and that the movements themselves are capable of writing their history, and do not run the risk of others doing it for them.
We did not mean to establish a category for these archives. In fact, if there is anything that links these archives, it is undefinition. Our obligation as professionals committed to the transmission of knowledge is to assume some form of responsibility for the preservation of these documents, to manage them, if we need to, and if we do not, at least to include them in our discipline. The archive of everyone and everything, what some call the social archive, is an important future subject for our profession.
The photographic and audio fonds no longer present problems, but it seems that other media still do. The archival doctrine has marginalised and scorned less conventional documentation, which has often found shelter in the field of libraries and museums. We have to overcome the borders between disciplines; indeed, a part of our work should consists in crossing them.
I propose to extend the traditional limits of our profession – and if necessary to reformulate the very notion of what an archive is – since the traditional concept of an archive has become too narrow. We run the risk of being left out of what is happening in reality, since the document is no longer identified with paper text and the archive is no longer a mere repository; it is evidence of our ways of understanding reality.
The function of these archives is very broad. They document, but at the same time they create collective memory, they have a political and social impact, they provide a loudspeaker for the most ephemeral voices of citizenry, they democratise the objects of science. They can even have therapeutic effects, helping collective and individual mourning. These documents, in principle ephemeral and with no vocation for transcendence, end up becoming worthy of an archive. In this way, archives become something less institutional, they acquire a more social perspective. In fact, the ordinary citizens involved in the events generated by these archives – and who are generally very far from our environment, because they have no relationship whatsoever with the institution or because they are not researchers, or because they have never needed our services – could feel validated by this aspect of the archival science, closer to their reality.
ReferencesCarter, R., 2006. Of Things Said And Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, And Power In Silence. Association of Canadian Archivists.
Sánchez Carretero, C., 2011. El Archivo Del Duelo. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas.
Nahon, G., 2018. Mise En Archives Des Réactions Post-Attentats. Association des archivistes français. Image available at: this link [Accessed 19 Nov 2020].