The secret power of archives
My time at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) is near its end, and I have been looking back at that year wondering what, out of the many skills and insights I’ve picked up, would be the one most important lesson. And what kept popping up in my head was ‘the power of archives’.
Frankly, I didn’t know much about archives before coming into this job. The moment my eyes opened to this vast, wondrous ocean of information was a life-changing experience. This past year has changed the way I look at ‘history’, the way I read and absorb information. I feel much more aware of the way historical narratives – so ultimately the reality around me – are constructed. That was the powerful change that archives have effected upon me, personally.
The emotional impact of archives
But I have seen many more ways in which archives are powerful, as I was lucky enough to run many of our adult and school workshops. Archival documents have a fantastic and, I can’t help feeling, somewhat undervalued emotional impact. At LMA, one of our more popular workshops is one on the Fire of London where children get to see documents such as a claim for financial support, presented to the Lord Mayor of London, by a woman who lost her possessions in the fire. ‘This comes from 1668 – from right after the Great Fire?’ they ask, looking at these fragile old pages with awe.
That look of absolute astonishment on the children’s faces is there again when I show them into a strongroom, with its high stacks of books and boxes on tall shelves. I tell them about how we keep the documents secure, try to shelter them from water, fire, pests and dust and mould, how we fix them if they get damaged, and how we surround them with so much care, almost as if they were living beings. ‘You must really care a lot about these documents,’ said a Year 2 girl, in a thoughtful, deliberate sort of way.
Well, we do care about them a lot, I thought. But why? ‘What are archives?’ we always ask at the beginning of each session. ‘It’s where you keep stories about London,’ said a Year 3 boy yesterday. I liked that explanation. So we do – some say we’re ‘London’s memory box’. But we don’t just keep the nice sort of memories. There are lots of stories which are sad or difficult to understand, like evidence of pain caused by social issues from poverty to racism. It’s true that there are also stories of hope and joy: campaigns against those issues, examples of creative activities. They are all snapshots of human activity, there in their original state, before someone uses them to create their own narrative.
Archives and their users
This is, I think, at the root of the power of the archives and their real value. The way the archival documents are created by a multitude of authors, there to be discovered and interpreted by their reader, makes archives naturally democratic, because they invite wide participation. Without participation, without active interpretation on the part of their user, they’re dead letters. In my view, the essential difference between a museum and an archive is that a museum visitor can only witness a portion of its collection that has been selected for her by the museum’s curator. But in an archive, every user is a curator. The user decides what she wants to see, and how she wants to see it.
That archives are ‘raw history’ is due to their honesty. It is said that to be of archival value, a document must be authentic. What it means is that this document is what it claims to be (although it can be misinterpreted, if analysed out of context, and it can be used in many different ways.) At times of political upheavals, archives often get destroyed in great hurry. That’s partly because the information they contain can change the way we look at our past and the way we understand the world around us. If I watch a film about slavery and see something that’s difficult to accept, my initial reaction might be to question it. But when I see a document from a plantation in Jamaica that lists people as if they were part of someone’s ‘goods and chattels’, that really makes a certain part of our past clear and undisputable to me.
Which brings me back to my first point – about the emotional impact of archives. Experiencing that moment of discovery is bound to send a shiver down your spine, and that is something that really makes an impact, really stays with you for a long time. I have worked with many community groups this year, exploring their Jewish, Asian, African, Black Caribbean, Polish, and other heritages, and I saw that impact every time. Seeing other people experience that moment of discovery has been the most enjoyable element of my traineeship.
So that’s what I came out with at the end of this traineeship: I’m a bit of an archive convert now, and with all the enthusiasm of a neophyte, I believe there is nothing quite like it in the heritage world in terms of its emotional and intellectual potential. I believe that using archives should be part of education the same way interpreting museum collections or art is. Inviting more people to contribute to archives increases the diversity of voices we hear. Knowing how to use archives is an empowering skill, and giving that skill to others can change both individuals and communities. With such potential to teach people new skills and knowledge, archives can strengthen the society we live in. And that is their secret power.