Archival Community, Indigenous Australia

Considering “The Power of the Archive”

We regularly hear about the ‘power of the archive’ and know about the importance of the archive for accountability and identity within our societies.

But do we ever actually stop to think about the term ‘power of the archive’? What is the nature of this power?

  • Do archives have inherent power?
  • Or is it those who engage with the archive who ‘assign’ power to it?

My PhD supervisor, Tom Denison, encouraged me to consider this and I’ve compiled a couple of cases for us to apply the above questions to.

Case 1:

Keith Windschuttle engaged with archival documentation in an effort to discredit the cases of genocide in the Indigenous communities of Tasmania and also to argue that the White Australia Policy was not the result of racist motivations.

In doing so, Windschuttle provided ammunition which the conservative politicians used against communities.

Those same records were accessed and interpreted very differently by other historians.

In this example it is my opinion that the historians are assigning power to the record through the dissemination of their contrasting interpretations.

You may argue that the very existence of those records is a form of evidenciary power. However, ultimately someone needs to be there to engage with the records and therefore assign power.

Next, consider the following:

Case 2:

The Ngarrindjeri nation are currently engaged in treaty negotiations with the South Australian Government. The Ngarrindjeri hold an extensive archival collection which evidences decades’ worth of political activism.

The fact that there is a Ngarrindjeri national archives may hold some sway over these treaty negotiations – is that inherent power?

Or by the very act of writing the above sentence have I assigned power to the archive?

Even the act of naming the archive the Ngarrindjeri National Archives has power. However, once again, it is human agency which is assigning that power.

At this point I am leaning toward the ‘archives hold assigned power’ argument. But let’s consider one more:

Case 3:

Lastly, let’s think about those individuals who have experienced the out-of-home Care sector in Australia (Care-leavers).

Some Care-leavers have been known to carry their case files into advocacy meetings with them. These files don’t tend to hold many positive or life-affirming records of those individuals’ time in Care, in fact they are too often disempowering and traumatic, so why take them into meetings?

This is pure speculation on my part but I believe that in these instances the files act as a memorial to lived experiences.

In this instance I see two types of power at play: t

  1. The individual assigns power to the file by deeming it important enough to take into advocacy meetings, but in addition;
  2. As a memorial to lived experiences, it is the materiality of those files which hold power – inherent power.


My Conclusion:

I believe that it is the materiality of archives which hold inherent power. The other forms of power are all assigned through those engaging with the archives, in whatever form. Is it therefore problematic to use the phrase ‘power of the archive’? I don’t think so, as an umbrella term it can encompass both inherent and assigned power.

Most readers will have a contrasting view on this I’m sure. The intention of this post is just to get us to engage more critically with the terminology our profession frequently uses.

I would love to hear your opinion! Please feel free to comment below and sign up for newsletters from this blog to receive notification of my next post which will provide a more in-depth consideration of the role of materiality in the power of the archive.



4 thoughts on “Considering “The Power of the Archive”

  1. Nice examples, Annlie. Most interesting! A contrarian position: the lack of records in the archives (not ever kept, lost, destroyed, not revealed, can’t be found) is another form of control over the subject person/community. Power can have several faces – which reminds me of a great essay by Stephen Steven? Lukes ‘On Power’,
    which describes three faces of power.

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