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Opening ‘Pandora’s box’: archives as sites of hurt and hope

  • Posted on January 26, 2012

An ancient Greek legend tells the story of Pandora who, at a time when the world was young and blissful, was given a box of gifts from the gods, and told never to open it. After a time, her curiosity got the better of her;she lifted the lid, and out flew all the ills - pain, sorrow, disease, envy, anger, etc. - that plague us today. Hurriedly she slammed the lid back, leaving just one thing inside. Then she heard a small voice pleading to be released, offering to help and heal. She lifted the lid carefully, releasing hope into the world…

Sometimes the archive feels a bit like a “Pandora’s box”, doesn’t it; especially when it holds fragments of a difficult past that have the power to re-open old wounds, confront the reader with information that dashes expectations, expose uncomfortable truths and reveal hurtful secrets – and offer hope for a more just future.

In the abstract of her paper, “Archives of Sorrow: An Exploration of Australia’s Stolen Generations and their Journey into the Past” published in History and Anthropology 22 (4), Fiona Murphy says, “We primarily see the archive as a storehouse of memory and fact, as the place from whence history issues forth. However, the archive is much more than this; it is a site of memory and a place of trauma and pain. It is a place of sorrow and loss for many, where unpacified ghosts with unfinished business await, yielding stories and letters different from expectation, a site where loss is localised and realised. It is also a space of confrontation, where expectations are denounced as lies, and where the truth assumes a different colour.” Murphy’s article engages with the attempt of Australia’s Stolen Generations to come to terms with past trauma by returning to the archives in search of what was taken from them under the government’s “removals policy” – people, places and worlds – and to trace both their personal history of removal and their family history. Working through files of letters from parents, reports from those who were involved in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, as well as those emanating from the institutions in which they were held, was a deeply painful experience. Describing the archive as “a place which bespeaks the presence of absence” and “a place where secrets, lies and truth are enshrined in the record” it is, she says, “a place where many ghosts lie in waiting, ghosts whom when spoken to may remedy the past, and the kind who should not be disturbed for their sullen intransigence may only do more harm. But, as she points out, it has also brought a degree of healing, leading many to try to rediscover their origins and reconnect with their families – even if the journey is, as she says, “tortuous”.

“Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage” currently on exhibition at the musée du quai Branly, unpacks an altogether different, but equally painful archive. Drawing on a vast range of paintings and sculptures, dioramas, photographs, film, posters, flyers, postcards, programmes and other ephemera, the exhibition explores the history of ‘human zoos’ that put people on display in circus, theatre or cabaret performances, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages and international or colonial fairs, to tell a story about the construction of otherness. It’s visually exhilarating absorbing and profoundly moving. Men, women and children classified as ‘freaks’ because they suffered some form of deformity or ‘exotic’ because they came from far-off lands, gaze steadily at the viewer from the photographs, drawings, paintings and audio-visual projections that line the walls. Some images linger uncomfortably in the mind: the bashful “Krao” a small girl described as the “missing link”; the shyly and hirsute Antionetta Gonsalvus; the exotically turbaned “Little Pepin’  - whose torso sprouts hands and feet stoically brandishing a sword; Farini’s sombre-faced “Earthmen” and; the be-feathered “Zoulous” prancing on stage at the Folies Bergere. One cannot help wondering what became of them all once they were no longer valued for their curiosity value. While viewers may feel like voyeurs, the curators of this exhibition have put archival material on display not to titillate but to teach; to shed light on ways in which ‘the other’ has been construed over centuries, and to ‘measure the extent to which racism, segregation, and eugenist ideas were able to penetrate public opinions, with no apparent violence, and while entertaining visitors”. I left with a fresh appreciation for the power of the archive as a place of hurt and healing; a resource on which we can draw to make sense of the past and the present and imagine a more just future. But, it’s also something of a ‘Pandora’s Box’, isn’t; it? 

In January Germans commemorated 20 years’ access to the archives of the Stasi – the secret police of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In a terrifyingly efficient project aimed at suppressing resistance to the regime, the Stasi gathered information from about 90,000 staff members and 200,000 informal collaborators – friends, neighbours, spouses and others - about anyone who criticised the government of the day through their words or deeds. They also implemented an extensive mis-information campaign, manufacturing documents, splicing together recordings to create conversations that never really took place, spreading rumours to bring people into disrepute. As the regime collapsed, Stasi officials started to destroy the evidence of their activities; shredding and burning thousands of documents and film footage.  In January 1990, Berliners seeing smoke billowing from the chimneys protested, building a symbolic wall of bricks and stone around the archive until eventually, the doors were opened. In her gripping 2005 book, Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall, Anna Funder describes the events of the period saying that, “debate raged hot in Germany as to what to do with the Stasi files. Should they be opened or burnt? Should they be locked away for fifty years and then opened, when the people in them would be dead, or possibly forgiven? What were the dangers of knowing? Or the dangers of ignoring the past and doing it all again, with different coloured flags or neckerchiefs or helmets?” The sheer mass of material in the archive is staggering: almost 1.6 million photographs, videos and audio recordings; 39 million index cards; 111 kilometres of neatly shelved files; and 1,500 bags of torn up documents bear witness to Stasi’s investigations into about 6 million people, almost one third of the GDR’s population at the time the Berlin Wall came down. Collectively, these records reveal a complex network of spies, spymasters and the spied-upon: unexpected acts of betrayal, breaches of confidence and trust; and as with the archives of the “Stolen Generation”, secrets, lies, and difficult truths – as well as manufactured ‘records’. At the heart of many of the interviews that informed Funder’s book is fear: fear of what the Stasi might have uncovered, manufactured or misconstrued; fear of the way in which the Stasi might use the records they had gathered to punish citizens or tarnish their reputations; fear that opening the records might reveal uncomfortable and compromising truths. On the other hand, several of those who have seen their records have had their suspicions about people they suspected of being informants laid to rest. Sometimes uncertainty brings carries the weight of impending doom, but knowledge brings the lightness of hope.

Archives – real or manufactured - and memory don’t always intersect comfortably. Archives are often, rightly or wrongly, accorded an authority not always granted memory, and memory may be unsettled or even contradicted by “evidence” carried in other, more formal records. In a presentation at the 2011 conference “Living with the Past”, Madeleine Fullard of the Head: Missing Persons Task Team at National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa, explained the dilemma she faced in her dealings with the families of missing activists, when evidence unearthed by her team contradicted the versions of the past that the families of the victims remembered, the “authorised” narrative constructed by their communities, brought the paternity of the victims into question or revealed the complicity of neighbours, family members or friends with apartheid forces.

The archive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa is still under wraps, despite the concerted efforts of civil society organisations such as the South African History Archive. Maybe those with the power to make the decisions required to open this archive fear that it could unleash too many secrets, lies and truths. Maybe though, it’s time we confronted the demons of the past that lie in wait in the archive of our difficult past. Maybe then we will have a hope of healing. 

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform

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