What is the archive?
A well-known introductory history textbook explains ‘the archive’ by first describing the Ark of the Covenant (freighted down with the words of God, it weighed 60 tons) and its triumphal arrival at the city of King David when he was crowned in 10,000 BCE, and then leaps, via power and governorship over the past, to a sprinkling of contemporary writers described as writing on archives as grand institutions that control the past and wield significant power. How wonderful to imagine how many thousands of bemused undergraduates will repeat the Ark of the Covenant’s weight and its part in David’s coronation in their essays and exams! The name of Derrida isn’t mentioned, though his ghostly presence lurks. But anyone who has worked in small cold rooms in down-at-heel museums and galleries, or in out-of-the-way and open two afternoons a week local archives, and in these dealt with helpful archivists doing their best to help us locate and work on our obscure objects of scholarly desire, will smile wry smiles. It also makes me wonder what archive of resonant power such folks might have worked in, and why my own experiences of archives – on three continents, a good dozen of countries, over a hundred archives, perhaps a thousand collections over the years – has been so different.
Last updated: 5 November 2015