Opinions

Archives: from the past, in the present, for the future?

  • Posted on April 18, 2011

The Herald-Dispatch

Japanese search for family albums and belongings among a pile of items recovered from the area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and displayed at a school gymnasium in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. Volunteers have been cleaning photos and personal possessions retrieved from damaged homes in the hope that they can be returned to survivors of the tsunami. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev) Photocredit: Herald-Dispatch.com
The Herald-Dispatch Japanese search for family albums and belongings among a pile of items recovered from the area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and displayed at a school gymnasium in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Wednesday, April 13, 2011. Volunteers have been cleaning photos and personal possessions retrieved from damaged homes in the hope that they can be returned to survivors of the tsunami. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev) Photocredit: Herald-Dispatch.com
One of the most poignant stories to emerge in media coverage of the events that have devastated Japan over the past weeks is that of Katsurato Hamada, 79, who fled to safety with his wife when the earthquake struck his village. Having survived the earthquake, Hamada returned to his home to retrieve a photograph album of his grandchildren, 14-year-old Saori, and 10-year-old Hikaru. Then the tsunami came. Rescuers found Hamada’s body, crushed beneath the bathroom wall, holding the precious album to his chest.

Why did Hamada return to the wreckage to fetch the album? His son Hironobu Hamada says simply that his father, “loved the grandchildren so dearly”, adding that “he has no pictures of me”. We’ll never know what choices Hamada made or why, after losing so much - his home, his everyday world – he wanted to retrieve that single tangible remnant of the past. Was Hamada’s action that of a man desperate to hold onto a past he shared with his beloved grandchildren or was it an act of faith in the future?

The story of Hamada raises a fundamental question. Why do the archive, archives, and the act of archiving matter?

The archive has to do with memory and with the act of remembering. The archival fragment, trace or sliver acts as a spur to memory, a reference through which to access the past. As Halbwachs notes, “there is in short no object upon which we reflect that cannot serve as a point of departure, through an association of ideas, to retrieve some thought which immerses us again, in the distant or recent past” (Wong,2009:5). Jimerson reminds us that memory is “fragile and malleable” and that archives, the collections of preserved historical resources, whether documentary, oral, visual, material, virtual or physical, matter in the present because they “fix memory in time and place so that it cannot change with new circumstances”. (Jimerson, 2003:90) In an uncertain world, where Hamada had lost so much, the photograph album may have held his memories safe.

The archive has to do with the past, with the preservation of material that can be drawn upon to make the past present in the present. As the circumscribed body of knowledge of the past the archive shapes and is shaped by the present; providing evidence that may be used to rethink or reconstruct the past in the present. In the absence of the archive the past is forgotten. As Hamada looked over a devastated landscape, and into an unknown future, the thought of the photograph album may have offered him a measure of consolation, evidence that his world was once different.

Archives have to do with forgetting; with the politics of inclusion and exclusion. The act of archiving involves fundamental choices about what to record, what to safeguard and what to discard. Who, reading the story of Hamada can forget his son’s heartfelt statement, “he has no pictures of me”. Whether by choice, or circumstance, Hamada’s son was excluded from his father’s archive. In the post colonial, post-apartheid world, many consider that the work of archiving has to do with remembering the forgotten, redressing the inherited bias of archives, addressing the silences brought about through historical exclusion, negation and neglect, in order to further the greater projects of social justice, reconciliation and social cohesion.

Harris notes that “As democratisation flourished, ‘archives for justice’ became the dominant discourse in South African archives.” This resonated with the experience of societies emerging from dictatorial or repressive regimes elsewhere in the world. (Harris, 2011) The process of justice, of righting wrongs and of retribution, is contingent on the body of evidence that exists in the archive. Justice cannot be done unless the record of abuse exists as evidence of past wrongdoing. Hamilton notes that project of reconciliation, “demands an interrogation of the past in order to identify previous abuses and wrongs”. (Hamilton pages 3-4) The mere existence of the archive does not, of course, guarantee justice. Justice implies action. It requires the archive to function as a dynamic public resource subject to constant scrutiny, interrogation, and re-interpretation.

Archives aren’t just about preserving the past; they have to do with preserving the present, capturing the transitory moment. Nora, arguing that modern memory is above all archival, suggests that “As traditional memory disappears, we feel obliged assiduously to collect remains, testimonies, documents, images, speeches, any visible sign of what has been, as if this burgeoning dossier were to be called upon to furnish some proof to who knows what tribunal of history.” (Nora, 1999: 14). Personal records offer evidence of our existence and that of others. They have the potential to endure beyond our life times, serving as memorials to, as Wong says, “insure we do not forget and that we are not forgotten”. As he set off on the fateful journey to retrieve his photograph album, did Hamada imagine a time when he and his grandchildren would page through the album reminiscing about the world that was? Did he imagine that, if tragedy struck, the album would serve as a memorial in a world where his grandchildren were not present? If he couldn’t guarantee the safety of his grandchildren, maybe he could at least save the one object that represented them best. Whatever the reasons, Hamada imagined a future of some kind or another.

We draw on the archive to invoke the past in the present. We secure the record of the present for a future we imagine as being better, more just and equitable than the present. We record the present because we want to be sure that we will not be forgotten, that someone, somewhere in the future will remember us individually or collectively. The act of archiving doesn’t demonstrate our reluctance to let go of the past, or our insistence on holding on to the present. It has to do with the future. It’s an act of faith in the possibility of the future. The archive, Derrida says, opens the future.

Hamada did not live to see the after effects of the earthquake and the tsunami and the desperate efforts of Japanese technicians to halt a meltdown and minimise the release of toxic radioactive material from two of the country’s nuclear plants. But what if he had? What if he had been forced to confront, as many of his fellow citizens have, the possibility of what Derrida refers to as “remainderless destruction”? In the face of the end-game, of total annihilation, would Hamada still have needed to keep his personal archival fragment, close?

Here’s another thought. In a world rocked by natural disasters, beset by political upheavals, where control of nuclear weapons lies in volatile hands, nuclear power plants run out of control and climate change poses the very real possibility of a global end-game, do we nonetheless keep the archive close and expend our energies on archiving because we believe that our faith will be rewarded, that the future beckons?

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform

References

Hamilton, C, unpublished paper.
Harris, V. 2011. “Jacques Derrida meets Nelson Mandela: archival ethics at the endgame”, in Archival Science, Volume 11, pages 113-124
Jimerson, R.C. 2003. “Archives and memory” in OCLC Systems and Services, Volume 19 No 3, 2003, pages 89-95
Nora, P. 1989. “Between Memory and History: Led Lieux de Memoire”, in Representation, Volume 26, Spring 1989, pages 7- 24
Wong, V. 2009 “Making the Record from Memory: A Case for Documenting the Personal”, in Faculty of Information Quaterly, Housing Memory Conference Proceedings, Volume 1, No 3 (May 2009)

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  • A great post! THANK YOU

    By Melissa Mannon, via Twitter on 21/04/2011
  • Thanks for a wonderful article

    By Rodney Carter via Twitter on 21/04/2011
  • Good article.

    By Roland Quintaine via Twitter on 21/04/2011
  • Poignant and profound, thank you.

    By Sandra Prosalendis on 21/04/2011