Archival Community

Place is Bigger than Metadata: Country as Record

Country = Record.

Any landscape represents an archive of the interaction between humans and that environment.

This interaction is bi-directional; just as humans influence the environment, the environment influences humans and studying the environment (through whatever method), can help us to understand this interaction.

Within this blogpost I consider the nature of archaeology as a destructive means of studying the environment.

This is my second post on the theme ‘Place is Bigger than Metadata’, and just like the previous one which explored maps as colonial tools, it was inspired by the 2017 Critical Archives conference held at Deakin University.

During the conference, historian Billy Griffiths shared with us the idea that archaeology and archival practice shared commonalities. The most striking of which was the idea that both archaeology and the archive destroys as it discovers.

According to Phillip Barker, archaeological excavation is like ‘cutting pieces out of a hitherto unexamined manuscript, transcribing the fragments, and then destroying them.’ Therefore, as Griffiths observed, ‘an archaeological site is a historical document that can be read once and once only’.

That archaeological site makes its own mark upon the environment and itself becomes a record of an interaction between people and the environment – wrenchingly through the destruction of much that had come before.

Does the archive destroy as it discovers too?

Consider what is lost (destroyed) when records are taken from the state they were found in: 

To this:

As records are captured as archives and placed in repositories, we destroy the contextual information they originally existed in. For example, my photo of degrading boxes above was taken in a manufacturing plant which was being decommissioned. That environment of neglect and decay is something which could not be adequately captured through photography and narrative.

How would the interpretation of these records differ when read in a clean reading room of an archival institution versus within that manufacturing plant itself? Keeping in mind that:

  • Within the reading room, the individual would first have come across metadata description of the material and have formed an idea of what they would find, and;
  • Would not need to don gardening gloves, a head torch and a dust mask.

What are we destroying as records go into archives?

Considering the issues outlined above, what are measures archival professionals can implement to limit our degree of destruction?

  1. Go through a thorough surveying process (take photos of everything, according to Gavan McCarthy you want someone else to be able to recreate the collection as found), and;
  2. Make sure that the ‘archival story’ of the collection remains with the collection. No one should be left wondering what the archivist did. Again, according to Gavan, ‘the hand of the archivist must always be visible’.

Like archaeology, the initial surveying of records and their context can only be done once. We archivists have a responsibility to do it correctly, in order to mitigate the level of destruction we cause.

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