Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Archivists and Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage or cultural resources management are concepts often associated with archives and archivists. Graham Fairclough, Rodney Harrison, John H. Jameson, Jr., and John Schofield, eds., The Heritage Reader (London: Routledge, 2008) is a massive volume bringing together seminal readings in the cultural heritage world. Grouped into four sections – definitions, ownership, management, and interpretation – the essays in this reader seem to have little to offer directly to our understanding of archives, except perhaps to demonstrate what this loosely fitting discipline thinks itself to be.

As the editors suggest, this volume “brings together a collection of key works that represent a combination of established principles and new thinking in cultural heritage management to emerge since the late 1980s.” The editors define cultural heritage “in the broadest sense (including archaeological and cultural resource management), utilizing archaeologists’ perspectives of long-term change and taking as a starting point the role and significance of material culture in the modern world.” They also define archaeology in “its broadest sense too, as a method for interrogating and entangling both the material traces of the past and the narratives with which they are understood in the present” (p. 7). Another contributor, Graeme Davison, acknowledges that cultural heritage and its management is a difficult notion to define precisely: “As soon as the net of definition is lifted over it, it takes flight” (p. 40).

Those working as archivists or with archives will profit from perusing the volume – perusing since it is really more of a reference work than a seamless narrative meant to be straight through in a few evenings – as they encounter assessments that come close to capturing the heritage aspects of archives. Denis Byrne, for example, makes a plea for using the notion of memory in cultural heritage work: “People who move through a landscape where they have lived or spent time in the past inevitably encounter traces of themselves there. These are not just physical traces, like old bicycles and discarded toys, left behind by their younger selves. They also ‘encounter’ associations. Recollections and emotions are triggered by the sight of traces in the form of objects; they are also triggered by the sight, smell and feel of familiar places even when there is no tangible/physical trace of their former presence” (p. 155). Of course, archival sources, both the traditional physical documents and the new virtual genres of record forms, can trigger such associations.
There are many such comments in this reader suggesting comparison to the archival enterprise.