Archives: always the poor relation?

I should begin straight away by declaring a (relatively new) interest. Whilst I wrote my PhD on a museum, I am currently working in the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at UCL so just recently I have spent a lot more time thinking about archives and specifically about archives as vectors of public historical understanding than perhaps I previously might have done. Which, to me, made their almost total absence from the conference all the more surprising. There were no panels dedicated to archives, and we didn’t hear from any archivists. Only in Frank Field’s paper, where he raised the issue of the problems Tony Blair’s distinctly informal approach to public administration will pose for future historians (according to Field, Thatcher left a much more rigorous and easy-to-follow paper trail), was the issue of the relationship between the record and public undestanding of the past raised at all. (The follow up discussion, on how Tony Benn has managed to secure a near monopoly over accounts of the proceedings of cabinet meetings in the 1970s by being – with the exception of Barbara Castle – the only person who kept a diary drove home the point about just how valuable archives as memory repositories are).

So how can do we account for the absence of archives and archivists? An unfortunate scheduling clash was one factor: most of the active archival researchers (and there aren’t many of them in the UK) were in Edinburgh while we were in Liverpool at the apparently excellent Philosophy of the Archive conference (to give some idea of the importance of this conference all the other members of my research group were there). And this is a shame because they were talking about things of real interest to us all: ‘Perpetuating replacement. Representing archives and the imaginary of social history’ or ‘Archives, power and knowledge’ to pick just two titles.

But also, as anyone involved in the heritage sector will know, archives are rarely a priority, neither for policy-makers and funders nor even, it would seem, for historians (David Lowenthal is a notable exception). This is a shame because in simple terms we are missing a trick: the growth in interest in family history in particular has made archives more popular than ever and a number or organisations are doing a great job at making their collections more accessible and their reading rooms more welcoming (the London Metropolitan Archive, which has *just* finished refitting its reading room – well worth a visit if you get a chance – is a case in point). An All-Party Parliamentary Group on Archives has just been set up in recognition of this growth in interest. If one definition of Public History is empowering people to go out and do-it-themselves, or democratising the practice, then local and community archives is where it’s at. And, as the Edinburgh conference shows, archival research is increasingly moving away from some of drier technical questions (I hope my esteemed colleagues will forgive me) to pressing issues to do with public engagement, identity, and power. Moreover, sometimes archives are the frontline in the struggles to control history, as current plans in France to close off access to ‘controversial’ archives and ‘privatise’ the archives of major political leaders reveal (see recent article from Le Monde – in French only I’m afraid).

Were archives even mentioned in the CfP? I wonder. Here’s a suggestion for next year: avoid the clashes (if possible), circulate the CfP on the relevant mailing lists and let’s make sure we have a panel!

Mary Stevens

The use of history in politics

I must admit that I found the ‘Why politicians should pay attention to history’ session slightly frustrating. Since I am not a specialist neither on Elizabethan Poor Law nor on contemporary social policy in Britain, I would not dare to dissect what has been said, but I want to point out some issues that have, in my view, not been discussed sufficiently.

I don’t think that we can just look at the origins of a complex and changing issue like the welfare system to explain why a specific political practice does not work today. While I agree that it is important to study political and social traditions to understand present day practice, we also need to take into account the changes in social structure and in the value system.  These changes might require new solutions, instead of justifying a return to an institutional setting that is not able to deal with contemporary problems. Furthermore, the welfare system is closely related to the economy; I am therefore convinced that effective solutions can only be found if the historical study includes the development of our economic system and contemporary economic policy.

I also believe that it might be useful to study the British welfare state in a comparative perspective. Do other states not have very similar issues regarding the financeability of the welfare state despite the different origins and historical developments of their institutions?

Kathrin Pieren

Some thoughts on conference blogging

So the conference is over and we have all returned home (with the exception perhaps of our colleagues from across the other side of the Atlantic). What can we make of this first experience of ‘conference blogging’? Well, in short, whilst it has been an interesting experience and I will be adding some more posts in the next day or two as I digest some of the fascinating presentations I have to say I am somewhat sceptical.

The problem with conference blogs is, as one delegate put it succinctly, that conferences are for many academics a precious moment of face-to-face interaction. And neither I, nor my fellow bloggers, were keen to sacrifice this opportunity to retreat to a computer. Access was also a bit of any issue as we only had wifi access in the Maritime Museum, and we were only in this venue during the presentations.

So, what could be done to make conference blogging work better? Here are a few ideas:-

  1. Nominate dedicated reviewers for sessions (especially the keynotes) so everything is covered
  2. Include a longer break at some point during the day. This could be used for blogging, for writing up notes, or for visiting local sites of interest (of which Liverpool is frustratingly full). This could be made up for my an evening session (although obviously I understand there are logistical issues here).
  3. Hold a final plenary session where the blog can be reviewed. This would be a way of integrating it into the conference.
  4. Set up a terminal (e.g. a laptop) in the coffee room where delegates can consult the posts and add comments and reviews.

And maybe think harder in advance about purpose and audience (the golden rule of any web project). Thoughts?

Mary Stevens

RSS feed from Kentucky

Readers may note that I’ve managed to add an RSS feed from the NCPH conference blog to the sidebar. This makes it easier to see what’s going on. They’ve clearly been reading our blog, so it would be great to see some comment here on their conference.

Mary Stevens

What impact?

One of the questions that has only really been touched upon over the last three days is the long-term impact of museum work. I think that there is a real need to carry out more qualitative research, at least in Britain. Museums and heritage sites don’t really have the money nor the capacity to do it. While they are busy demonstrating to funding agencies that their work has a positive impact on people’s intellectual achievements or their ability to bond with others, they would need to work with academia to analyse the long-term impact of museum visiting.

We do know, for instance, that museums impact on people’s identities, but we are not really sure about how they do that. What does actually happen in that big black box between the cultural policy of a museum and the visitor’s learning? How do visitors engage with objects and stories? How do museum visits impact on people’s ways of thinking about specific issues, like for instance slavery, the topic that was discussed this morning? And what role do their preconceptions, their interests, the circumstances of their visit and other factors have on their experience?

In an very interesting session on how to represent slavery, Helen Weinstein introduced us to the project ‘1807 commemorated’. It studies the process of how the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade was commemorated last year. The project looks at three phases of the event: media coverage of the commemoration; analysis of a series of exhibitions and artwork; impact of the exhibitions on visitors. The study sounds extremely exciting and it would be great if the longer-term impact on audiences and the wider public could be followed up some years down the line.

Kathrin Pieren

Marking the Bicentenary in Jamaica

Wayne Modest’s paper covering the events and feelings that marked the bicentenary in Jamaica, showed diverse perspectives on how people chose to talk about and commemorate slavery. What I particularly enjoyed was that in his own museum, the works Modest displayed were challenging and complex, allowing his visitors to see and think hard about the impact of slavery. As was brought up in the discussion following the paper, this sort of work is important for the global community as well. While it was mentioned that some exhibitions were brought to the UK from abroad, I believe challenging and emotive exhibitions such as the work Modest showed, is vital for the horror and complexity of slavery to be a constant reminder of present injustices.

Kelsey Flynn

Amsterdam: City of Tolerance

Annemarie de Wildt’s work in the Amsterdam Historical Museum, where she researched and created exhibits that helped find and connect citizens of Amsterdam to a shared identity as a community, connected history to the present in a way that did not avoid common Amsterdam stereotypes, but placed them within a larger concept uniquely vibrant within the city. The idea of Amsterdam as a ‘city of tolerance’ was embodied in several exhibitions she shared with us. These exhibitions embraced the diverse citizens of Amsterdam, critiqued their relationship with the House of Orange, and attracted both old and young in an interactive exhibit about music in the city. The Amsterdam Historical Museum has clearly gone to great lengths to include many groups of the Amsterdam community in the discussion about a shared identity within the metropolis. What I most respect about this work, is the commitment to challenging and reworking Amsterdam stereotypes, and including them in an identity that is well aware of its historical lows, and willing to engage in a discussion about what is valued historically, and how history affects the identity of Amsterdam citizens today.

Kelsey Flynn