History and memory

“History and memory share events; that is, they share time and space. Every moment is two moments.” (Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces)

When I attended a workshop on the Ontology of the Archive back in March 2008, Louise Craven from The National Archives talked about archives referenced in literature in a very engaging and thought-provoking way. It made me more aware of how archives are evident in many novels in one way or another. Fugitive Pieces (a truly great and inspiring book) is not particularly about archives but it resonates because it is about memory and history and understanding, and about the spaces, the emptiness, about what is missing…but then the absence is just as important as the presence in so many things, and not least in shaping and interpreting history. Archivists know this better than most, as they can be responsible for choosing what stays and what goes as far as documentary evidence is concerned, and they are responsible for deciding how to describe what exists, which has so much impact upon whether and how things are accessed and used, and arguably on how things are actually interpreted.

In some ways, archives represent history rather than memory because they are not consciously created to be research material – at least not in the sense that they may become historical evidence years into the future. When the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) wrote over 2,000 letters to his wife, particularly whilst he was in India designing New Delhi, he did not think about the letters being read nearly one hundred years hence, and used by social and architectural historians (at least we assume he did not). So, do letters such as these give us a piece of history? Do they represent the history rather than the memory? I have generally been inclined to think that archives are a means to access history in a direct way, as much as that is possible at all – they bring history closer because they are not an interpretation or an intellectualising of past events, but the stuff of past events. Having said that, reading a novel such as Fugitive Pieces, the past is brought to life and is given soul and emotion so effectively, and maybe that is really the life blood of history. In many ways its central theme is the holocaust, but rather than describing events, it just barely touches upon them. Yet the poignancy of the writing builds up emotions and empathy that seem to bring history to life far more palpably than facts could ever do.

Documents may not be emotional in themselves, but they can convey a great deal of emotion. Love letters may be obviously moving, and there may be expectation of the emotion that we should feel when reading them, but the simplest of texts – maybe a list of household goods or a hastily scribbled note, can also convey a great deal of feeling, especially if we know something of the context. This partly explains the continual importance that archivists place on provenance and the integrity of the whole archive. If we want to try to understand the feelings of past events, then it may be that the more context we have the better. But ironically by having so much context, the reality of a place in time will always elude us in the end; a broader perspective can draw us away from understanding the experience that the creator of the material might have felt.

When I worked as an archivist in a repository, I didn’t really muse on these things; now that I am surrounded by descriptions of archives without having to concern myself with the actual physical materials, it seems to encourage the occasional philosophical outburst. I think it has something to do with the fact that the descriptions are removed from the physical things and so I spend quite a bit of time thinking about them in abstract…or something along those lines.