Archives, Heritage, and History
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Diverse archival aims mirror diverse uses of the past in general. At one extreme are disinterested efforts to learn and understand what has actually happened; at the other, partisan zeal to fabricate a past that suits present needs—to forge an identity, to secure a legacy, to validate a conquest or a claim, to prove a preeminence. The role of archives in these contrary goals is symptomatic, indeed, crucial. The conbict is exempliaed today in a widening gulf between established archival repute and emerging archival reality. Texts, like artifacts, have long been treasured in Western culture, both as historical data and as heritage icons. Because the holy books of Jews and Christians embodied God’s actual words, their preservation was divinely ordained . Princes and prelates venerated relics and amassed manuscripts, inscriptions, and works of art and antiquity. Conserving records and relics became a public duty and a private aspiration, whether in the face of erosion, pollution , avaricious pillage, or iconoclastic spoliation. Many other cultures long dwelt more on orally transmitted memories and ritual processes than on tangible and archival heritage. But collectors the world over now emulate Western obsessive concern with material evidence of the past. UNESCO spearheads campaigns to return antiquities taken from former colonial and other lands. The repatriation of lost heritage is deemed integral to the identity and self-respect of nations and of minorities . Archived evidence of cultural continuity can be crucial as tribal bona ades or to sustain local tradition against global pressures. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, archival records came to be valued as reliable repositories of truth, seedbeds of unabridged and veracious history. Open to inspection by all and preserved for all time, archives promised an authentic, untampered-with past. If archivists were no longer, as for ancient Sumerians, “supervisors of the universe,” they were at least the trustworthy stewards of its annals.1 “The good Archivist,” in Sir Hilary Jenkinson ’s canonical statement of 1947, “is perhaps the most selbess devotee of Truth the modern world produces.” That credo—today “at best outdated, at worst inherently dangerous,” in one professional’s verdict—was until recently too comforting to challenge. “Archivists have been slow to question our profession’s long held view of archives and archival records as sites of historical truth.”2 But this austere, holier-than-thou ideal is now much tarnished. Under growing assault, archives are no longer held to be immortal but now are seen as transient, no longer unabridged and unedited but partial and bowdlerized . They are witnesses not to unadorned truth but to invented contrivance. Just as a “presidential library” today seems a contradiction in terms,3 so the word archive now conjures up confusion, conspiracy, exclusivity. As in José Saramago’s cautionary novel, archival repositories are shown to be realms of abuse, irregularity, forgery, and fraud.4 Once epitomes of the axed and unblemished record of history, archives now betoken the partisan dubieties of heritage. They are no longer open to all but only to some, often to none in their entirety. Access is ever more curtailed; the very existence of an archive is often known only to a select few. Their prevalent image is like the ad for “Glenlivet Archive” whiskey: a special bottling not generally available to the public.5 This fall from virtue distresses those who once lauded archives as paragons of trustworthy permanence. Some react by spurning archives—doubting their commitment to stewardship, pillorying their curators, denying them funds, acquiescing in their dissolution. Natalie Zemon Davis’s Fiction in the Archives6 might perhaps better be retitled Friction in the Archives. No longer the august 193 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Archives, Heritage, and History David Lowenthal ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ arbiter of unquestioned fact, the archive is now a prime locus of doubt and discord. How and why has this come about? What does it bode for the future? Misreading Archival History Mistaken assumptions of previous archival perfection underlie much current dismay. The great libraries of the ancient world were hailed as sanctuaries of the supposed totality of recorded history.7 The spread of printing lent archives further acclaim as repositories of uncorrupted and unabridged primary sources. Yet actual usage mocked claims of archival plenitude, probity, integrity, and openness. Indeed, written texts long served more to shackle than to liberate inquiry. The sacredness of Holy Scripture made the written word crucial to centralized authority in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian society. Empowered by Emperor Constantine’s fourth-century edicts, the Church told Christians what to think and how to act. Missals...