The Politics of the Archive: reflections, observations and challenges

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

One rainy winter day in 2016, I was navigating the cavernous halls and corridors of the British Museum, looking for the Department of Prints and Drawings. I had arrived to examine two seventeenth-century engraved frontispieces depicting Saint Augustine, the early Church Father, for an MPhil project on the reception of Augustine’s works. When I finally located the correct floor, I was hailed down by a museum guard at the entrance: ‘Madam, this is not the tourist section’ they volunteered. I mumbled an explanation about an appointment with the Curator of Prints—which presumably got muffled, because the staff repeated (this time louder and slower): ‘Maadamm, NO touurissts here’, making a wide crossing-arm gestures to clarify. Something about my age, gender or the colour of my skin and hair, signalled tourist, not researcher.

Years later, I was conducting archival research in the National Archives in Yangon, Myanmar. On a Sunday evening respite from the archive, dressed in local lungis, my travel companion and I were stopped by the military on suspicion that we were Rohinga Muslims. As South Asians, we made an unlikely pair of researchers-from-the-UK and a much more likely pair of ‘Bangaladeshi Muslims’ with secreted weapons. Similarly, on a trip to consult archives in the Middle East, I was asked while on the plane by a kindly South Asian woman, ‘nangi, oya inna gedara kohomada?’ [Sister; how are you treated at the house where you are employed [as a domestic worker]?]. Working in my own ‘home-archive’, where I speak the local language and know the staff well, I was once informed that my required documents ‘did not exist’—until an older white, male researcher in the reading room volunteered that he consulted the same documents last week, so they must, in fact, be mis-shelved somewhere.

Several historians have theorised the archive—those weighty paper-leaden repositories of the past. Scholars have written lyrically on the affective experience of confrontation with the past; the deluge of information and the deadening tirade of bureaucracy; the possibilities for radical empathy with historical actors; and, importantly, the consequences of the archive’s silences (women, the poor, people of colour etc). And yet, if the ‘inanimate’ archive exists on paper, etched in vellum or ink; for professional, working historians, writers and researchers, the former is overlaid with a ‘living’ archive, animated by archival staff, security guards, and other scholars.

In October 2018, the UK’s Royal Historical Society released their ‘Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report’ based on a survey of over 700 university-based historians. The report is damning and unambiguous in its appraisal of the lack of diversity in history departments (among UK-national staff, 96.1% of university historians are white, making history one of the least diverse subjects in higher education). In the wake of the publication, I heard several senior scholars assess the findings of the report along structural lines: ‘But we can never get the high school curriculum changed to reflect more diverse histories (medieval African kingdoms, for example)!’. This discussion focuses heavily on institutional or structural choices such as course offerings or department budgets for new hires.

Although these points are well raised and important, I could not help thinking that they missed the creeping, softer malignant effects of underrepresentation. That is, although institutional structures certainly have an important role to play in fostering diversity, in its fullest and most ambitious iteration, representative and diverse history departments must be attuned to sentiments of belonging, community and well-being—the capacity for every person to work at their fullest regardless of their age, ability, gender, racial or socio-economic background. (This overly structural focus persisted despite the fact that the report was littered with testimonials such as, ‘No one believes me’ or ‘I do not feel welcome’ or ‘I am second-guessed by colleagues and students’.)

It is certainly a greater challenge to be attentive to the more ephemeral, subjective ways of being of members of a community. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that the latter may elude quantification with discrete statistics. And yet truly inclusive spaces require consideration of  inter-personal, in addition to  institutional, interactions: the unwarranted romantic attention directed at a young female graduate student; the second-guessing of the working-class or headscarf-wearing academic; the double-takes when a person of colour asks for the 11th-century French illuminated manuscript or, the ‘Madam this section is not for tourists’ precursor to a scheduled research visit.

As historians confronting an archive and each other, we need to ask ourselves what unconscious biases exist about what a historian looks like; and if so, how they impinge on our work. Is a young, dark-skinned woman in a headscarf presumed by those around her to be less entitled to a space that might offer different resources or services to say, a middle-aged (preferably greying), male?  The politics of the archive is not confined to the documents we read. A historical profession that aims to be more inclusive must pay attention to both.

 Image: Tamil Nadu State Archives, Chennai. Author photograph (July 2019).

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