Mataeriel Culture: The Archaeology of 20th Century Conflict

By John Schofield; William Gray Johnson et al. | Go to book overview

25

Displaying history's violent heritage: how does the archivist approach exhibiting documents which relate to violent events?

ANNE GEORGE

In his first presidential address to the Society of Archivists in 1955, Sir Hilary Jenkinson stated that the essential and primary responsibilities of the archivist are 'the duties of conserving the evidence and of communicating it to the student public' (Jenkinson 1956). This was true then and is even more so now, nearly fifty years later, when improved awareness of and accessibility to archival collections, outreach and the exploitation of resources are increasing concerns. Archivists are the preservers of the recorded past: they seek out, classify and catalogue the documentary heritage in whatever format it comes, whether in medieval manuscript or modern electronic text, in image, or in sound files; they make it available for research and safeguard it for the future. Archival institutions exist to house collections of records to nationally adopted standards and to keep them safe against the time when they may be called up to further some kind of research or answer an enquiry. They are kept equally, even if no one uses the material for years: historical evidence should surely be conserved simply because history exists.

The process of 'making available' includes a range of different practices and some of these require special considerations due to the very nature of the archives involved. The survival of the record in the first place, its acceptance or selection for permanent preservation, the constraints imposed upon it by the owner or its creating body all affect how it is treated once it has reached the stage of being an 'archive', rather than a piece of information still required for current reference. Some archives pose no particular difficulties, but there are many classes of document which must be treated with especial care, due to the nature of information they contain and the conclusions which may be drawn from them. The information may be controversial or sensitive. It may describe, in words or in images, events of great violence, horror or the suffering of individuals or whole peoples. It is these sorts of records that the archivist should consider carefully before putting them in front of the public. Having them accessible for an individual's private research is one matter. It is something very different to use them in exhibitions which may well be seen by a wide range of people, of all ages and backgrounds. As with other heritage officers, museum curators and custodians of particular sites and buildings, distress and controversy can be inherent in much of what archivists deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Any County Record Office in England will house classes of archives such as those of the Boards of Guardians - administrators of the poor law until well into the twentieth century - whose records can cruelly illustrate the sufferings, both

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