Archival Community

Is the Materiality of the Archive its Power?

In my last blogpost I examined ‘The Power of the Archive’ and concluded that records themselves predominantly don’t hold inherent power, but are assigned power through interactions with people. I concluded that the only inherent power of the archives lies in their materiality.

Thank you to everyone who engaged in the resulting conversation. You definitely prompted me to further develop this thinking! Here are a couple of the resulting thoughts:


The majority opinion appeared to be that the power of the record resulted through its interactions with social actors. This aligned with my initial post, however Mike Jones took it one step further in his response:

…to understand power we need to understand the ways in which things interrelate. This doesn’t have to be engagement with the records (in the sense of access and use). An organisation which prevents access to its records (or destroys them) by doing so produces and reproduces structures of power. Power here is not something inherent to things, or assigned to things by agents, but the product of complex systems involving things, their relationships, and their contexts.

Meaning that the power of the archive does not simply relate to the actors which engage with it, but is influenced by the complex system in which that archive exists (or doesn’t exist).


Materiality of the Archive

Interestingly, if one searches for academic papers on ‘the power of the archive’ in Google Scholar the top result is a paper from 2002 that examines the materiality of the archive. Mbebe’s (2002, p. 19) paper emphasises the architecture and form of the archive in its perceived power.

“The status and the power of the archive derive from this entanglement of building and documents. The archive has neither status nor power without an architectural dimension, which encompasses the physical space of the site of the building, its motifs and columns, the arrangement of the rooms, the organisation of the ‘files’, the labyrinth of corridors, and that degree of discipline, half-light and austerity that gives the place something of the nature of a temple and a cemetery…”

This view, whilst beautifully written, preferences colonial archival structures and disempowers community archives (which I view as incredibly powerful). The Ngarrindjeri National Archives described in my previous post currently resides in a corrugated iron structure – and I argue that this architecture does not diminish the power of the archives one bit in comparison with a grand building with columns.

Unfortunately, others may think differently and perceive one archive as more powerful than the other.

I’m guilty of a similar prejudice however. As Mike Jones pointed out – a consequence of emphasising the materiality of the archive is that it sidelines oral cultures.

if it is the materiality of archives that gives them inherent power, does this mean immaterial records (for example, those based in oral traditions) or intangible heritage, in lacking materiality, lack power?

And as observed by Frank Golding in a comment on my last post, the exclusion of certain types of records from the archive holds inherent power.

I’d like to amend therefore my conclusion from my previous post by saying that it is the existence (or nonexistence) of the archive, not its materiality, which holds inherent power.



Mbembe, A. (2002). The Power of the Archive and its Limits. In Refiguring the archive (pp. 19-27). Springer Netherlands.

2 thoughts on “Is the Materiality of the Archive its Power?

  1. This is a very interesting discussion. I would add a couple of thought bubbles. I have found the thinking of Lynn Kelly – (an Australian living in Castlemaine) as compelling to at least consider. She argues there was nothing immaterial about pre-literate cultures. In fact, quite the reverse. The material world actually served as a mnemonic index to support inter-generational memory and knowledge exchange. Indeed, also that transition cultures went further to construct mnemonic devices using artefacts derived from the material world. I would also add the possibility that evolutionary biology also offers compelling perspectives that offer somewhat deep insights into the relationship between agency and material artifacts and the ascription of meaning.

    Thanks for the opportunity to read this stuff. Fascinating

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