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Archive for November, 2023

The Migrated Archives Seminar Series: Overview

By Anna Sexton, on 20 November 2023

During October and Nov 2022, the UK Migrated Archive Working Group held a series of seminars and workshops to raise awareness around some of the issues, challenges and ethics surrounding the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Migrated archives.

The seminars were devised to centre the perspectives of Archivists from affected countries; and promote and provide opportunities for all archivists to be involved in reparative action.  We wanted to hear from eminent experts in the field and archivists from around the world, taking this opportunity to work together to spur action on this long-neglected issue.

We held three seminars and two workshops.  The series was structured to be an active listening, learning and productive experience for all.

This blog post will give a short rundown on the seminars and workshops and how you can get involved with our work.

Seminar One – The UK Migrated Archives: Introducing Issues, Challenges and Ethics

In our first seminar we introduced the subject of migrated or displaced Archives and some of the histories around them.

Dr Anna Sexton (University College London, UK) introduced the group, whose impetus was to bring attention to migrated and displaced archives to a new cohort of students at the UCL Archives and Records Management Master’s course. Through the UCL base interested students could go deeper and further into this area, putting some of the taught theory taught into action.

Dr James Lowry (City University of New York, USA), a core member of the group and an author of two books on these Archives, went on to explain some of the background of these archives.

One of the first things the group tackled was the use of terms like ‘migrated’ or ‘displaced’ and James stressed that this was not a restrictive term, but a broad description which would allow participants to talk about any and all records removed from place of creation and records where there is dispute over ownership – including in instances of succession of states. He then went on to go through the timeline on multilateral efforts at resolution – from 1977 to the present day, and the various efforts of organisations such as UNESCO and ICA and working groups such as the Displaced Archives Working Group and ACARM to resolve some of these issues. His timeline is attached at the bottom of this blog.

Next Dr Mandy Banton (School of Advanced Study, University of London, UK), who is also a core member of the group and has many decades worth of experience with these archives through working at the TNA and written extensively on these archives, gave an overview of the issues and challenges surrounding the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Migrated Archives, and the over seventy five years of contentious history.  Her speaking notes are also attached.

Our keynote speaker was Dr Stanley Griffin (University of the West Indies, Jamaica). His keynote address was entitled: “No Record is an Island”: Unravelling the Value Paradox of “Displaced and Migrated Archives”. On the subject of the UK’s Migrated Archives and archival ethics and reparation, his talk was a fascinating look at documents and how by their very virtue documents are all connected to a certain social meaning and value.  If those connections are broken, then the documents lose context.   Displaced / migrated archives have a two-fold break – as colonised countries don’t know what they contain, and the colonising countries only see them, shaping the attitudes and policies surrounding them. This in turn leaves behind silences, people feeling disenfranchised and wanting to seek justice.  Stanley went on to look at the idea of repatriation and what this means to both colonisers and colonised – and his speaking slides are attached.

Seminar Two: Listening Session Wednesday 26 October

For our second seminar, we listened to archivists and researchers from affected countries, to learn from their experiences.

Professor Mpho Ngoepe (University of South Africa) brought in perspectives from South Africa.  He discussed what displaced records meant for South African National History.

Ngoepe highlighted that many archival documents from South Africa were looted and found their way into private hands through dubious means. Files from the Rivonia Trial of Nelson Mandela, for example, ended up in UK underground markets. Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the trial, had also sold his records to the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg. These files were returned to South Africa through the intervention of the Oppenheimer family.  This added a different layer to the discussion of displacement.

As well as this, many documents in the Parliament Library of South Africa were wantonly destroyed in the late 1970s and the early 90s. This has had a severe impact on South Africa’s social memory, obliterating official documentation of the workings of the state’s security apparatus, and of extra-parliamentary opposition.

Prof Ngoepe also discussed digitisation as a repatriation strategy for documents and its success in the South African region. About 1500sq ft of the records belonging to the Walvis Bay Magistrate of former South West Africa (now Namibia) were repatriated as microfilms. He asked that the UK consider similar strategies to ensure that archival documents were available to the people and locales that created them. He also urged archivists to take lessons from research in Kenya on the successes of digital repatriation.

Avril Belfon (Head of the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago) reiterated Ngoepe in highlighting the need for archives to be available in the countries in which they were created. But rather than a removal of the records from colonizing nations Belfon asked for strategies that allow equitable access for the formerly colonised as co-creators of those records. Repatriation, she argued, is an ethical opportunity for archivists at archives in former colonising nations to serve their publics.

Trinidad and Tobago have limited access to records for the years in which it was colonised by the British Empire (1797-1962). In some cases, the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago chose to purchase records of Trinidad and Tobago as microfilms. But scant description on archive catalogues have made it difficult for them to identify the records that they should prioritise for purchase and acquisition. Large pieces of the puzzle that would allow the country to tell its own history are inaccessible.

Belfon asks archivists in the UK and elsewhere in possession of displaced records to collaboratively work to make free digital copies available to the nations to which they belong, to collaborate with the private sector to find funding to facilitate repatriations, promote collaborations and access for academics of the countries seeking access, and support programs and fellowships that allows those seeking the records to access them freely.

Lastly, we heard from Shibani Das (Department of Humanities, University of Exeter). Das spoke from the context of having worked with archives in India. She highlighted barriers of access in archives that have been displaced.  This was not only from the lens of colonisation but from the degrees of removal from access that intersectional inequalities precipitate. For Indians caste, gender, class, flights costs, access to scholarships, and visa regulations are all barriers to the access of the India Office Library based at the British Library in the UK – where the bulk of archives from colonial India are held.

Das agreed that while digitisation is a viable strategy for archives to have copies of documents that that were held by the libraries of the colonising governments, this should be combined with working to find the resources to repatriate originals to the former colonies. In discussing these she also made the point of how accessible archives in India are, where government control of access to documents, barriers of caste, class and gender continue to be bar access to much of the public.

Seminar Three: Learning From Elsewhere Wednesday 2 November

For our fourth seminar we heard from some of the archivists and researchers around the world that have managed to tackle some part of the issues to share learnings and good practice.

The first speaker was Arjan Agema, The National Archives Netherlands (TNA Netherlands), who spoke about the need to decolonise the archives, and especially in regard to Suriname.  This had followed for them from recent global discussions: including the ICA’s work on displaced archives, the need for more diversity and inclusivity, the Black Lives Matter movement and advice from the Council for Culture on cultural objects.

After a series of roundtables on decolonisation and the recommendations from these he went on to consider a number of questions: to whom restitution was for? Was it for the state, NGO’s, Individuals?  Would the restitution include the whole collection, parts, or just objects?  What was the criteria for restoration, storage and preservation and what would accessibility look like? And technical and logistical issues –like archive opening hours, website access, through to open data policies, political conditions and the pro’s and cons of digitisation as restitution.

The collaboration with Suriname was a huge breakthrough and the emphasis for him was on sharing –so that both countries had access, and so both parties can construct their own history, but keep in mind that each is written from another perspective.

In his advice to UK archivists embarking on this work, he recommended advocacy initiatives on shared archival history and to reach out and start dialogues.  He emphasised starting with dialogue then moving to negotiation and the importance of mutual respect for each other.

Rita Tjien Fooh, the director of the National Archives of Suriname, then followed.  She described her long standing relationship with the TNA Netherlands.  After going through the history of these archives and discussion and negotiations on reparations between 2008 and 2010, followed by a period of digitisation till 2017, and collaboration on these archives from then onwards. In three years, she had achieved all the various elements needed for the collaboration.

Rita highlighted the need for countries going through this to keep in mind a respect of each other. Emotions can be high and there will be heated discussions with differing interests for both sides. Although there are still some support needed, for example, in capacity development and technical infrastructure support – through collaboration these issues can be overcome.

She highlighted the need for investment in young people starting in the profession especially in technical skills.  As there were more than 5 million documents the website hosting had to be updated, as it was underdeveloped and could not handle the amount of scans. This collaboration was a breakthrough for Suriname and Rita applauded TNA Netherlands and Arjan for their help and support.

Rita also highlighted issues with the legacy documents as they were given to her, including the finding aids that were used at the TNA Netherlands.  These contained the legacy of colonial administration and one example she gave was archival documents on the Surinamese resistance fighter and anti-colonialist author Cornelis Gerhard Anton de Kom.  In some instances he was labelled as a ‘Troublemaker’.  Rita highlighted that these were finding aids written by the oppressor – and there was a need to finding solutions or rewrite these finding aids as important stories would not be uncovered.

More advice would be welcomed on developing or rewriting finding aids.  The key to a finding aid is making sure people find what they want to find. In Rita’s own experience for example looking for a figure like Anton de Kom reinforced the idea that people of colonised countries need to look at these catalogues with critical eye. An archive can be written with two different perspectives of the same record.  She asked how much of a difference does it make from different perspectives? How would an archive find a solution to this? Does the receiving archive rewrite the catalogue? Would that disturb the order? She suggested two ways of looking at this: either adding descriptions after talking to the communities involved or asking relevant communities to look at what was not acceptable.  In order to do this technical access to the catalogue would need to be given directly.

Rika Theo (University of Amsterdam) followed by looking at her work on archives of the Indonesia left in the Netherlands. These were archives on the Communist movement during the revolution. Communism was banned in Indonesia and is still banned today; it is marginalised even in school education. As this is a new part of history it can be emotionally heavy work. These are not documents of the past and tis is recent unresolved trauma.

Research in this area of history is starting to grow, but the archives relating to this side of history are still silent.  Although they are mostly open, they are still seen as hidden.  The archives come under ‘State’ archives, but Rika emphasised that it is not clear whether they belong in a museum or as a country archive.  She felt it was important to consider this for a healthy transition and for historical justice.

In deciding the location of these archives, it is often easier to find the most appropriate location when they belong to private or non-governmental actors.  Problems with reparation often arise when archives move from Government to Government.  The mission for Indonesian archives is to have archives that unify the nation.  Consideration must be given to access; they must be accessible to the relevant communities and researchers that look at this history.

Michael Karabinos (University of Amsterdam) compared finding aids in Indonesian records. These are records that were created locally but were looted.  Finding aids were created in early 2000s, which contain racist language and still comprise a difficult arrangement of archives.   Not much has changed and to date the Netherlands arrangement of the collection is still being used. Michael felt that finding aids should considered, and attention paid to problematic vocabularies like offensive terms, perspectives and arrangement. These archives contribute to a country coming to terms with its past, and the stories contained in these archives are important ways of reaching communities.

Michael noted that in Austria finding aid came under a lot of scrutiny – maybe in the UK, UK archivists should give attention to the state of their legacy finding aids in preparation to repatriation.


Workshops One and Two:

Wiki-Edit-Athon – Wednesday 9 November

We then held two workshops, the first was to improve and update the Wikipedia page on the FCO Migrated Archives with participants, to expand and explain more fully the complicated histories and issues surrounding these archives.  The wiki page is a work in progress and can be viewed here:

Foreign and Commonwealth Migrated Archives Wikipedia Page 

What Comes Next for the Profession? Wednesday 16 November

The final workshop was to consider what comes next for the profession and as a call to action for interested archivists to join in with some of the strands of campaign work organised. Watch this space for details of letters we are writing to call attention to these issues.


The Migrated Archives Working Group

The UK Migrated Archive Working Group was established in March 2022 by Dr Anna Sexton (UCL, UK), Dr James Lowry (Queens College, City University of New York, USA) and Dr Mandy Banton (School of Advanced Study, University of London, UK).  It brought together a group of students from UCL’s MA in Archives & Records Management’s 2021/2022 cohort who were committed to working on raising awareness on issues connected to the displacement of archives resulting from Britain’s former colonial entanglements.

If you are interested in being involved in our work please contact Anna Sexton a.sexton.11@ucl.ac.uk in the first instance.

Posted by Anna Sexton. Authored by Alia Carter.

For further background please read our first blog post: Introducing the UK Migrated Archive Seminar and Workshop Series | UCL Centre for Critical Archives & Records Management Studies

New Publication: Critical Heritage Studies and the Futures of Europe

By Anna Sexton, on 18 November 2023

A new open access volume featuring chapters from CCARMS researchers, Critical Heritage Studies and the Futures of Europe, has been published by UCL Press.

Critical Heritage Studies and the Futures of Europe, edited by Rodney Harrison, Nélia Dias, and Kristian Kristiansen, is the final outcome of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) Innovative Training Network (ITN) “CHEurope: Towards an integrated, interdisciplinary and transnational training model in cultural heritage research and management.”

This new publication includes chapters by CCARMS members and DIS researchers Andrew Flinn, Julianne Nyhan, and Hannah Smyth who were part of this project and doctoral training consortium. Their chapters come under the thematic subsection ‘Digital heritages and digital futures’, partially reflecting the work package to which they belonged for the duration of the project: ‘Digital heritage: the future role of heritage and archive collections in a digital world.’

Hannah Smyth’s chapter, ‘#Womenof1916 and the heritage of the Easter Rising on Twitter’, uses data collected for her PhD thesis to reflect on the role of social media for critical heritage studies in an uncertain data landscape. A study of the ways in which Irish feminists were engaging in critical remembrance of the 1916 Rising in 2016, it further contemplates the ephemeral and mnemonic qualities of social media posts and their archival potential, specifically posts on X (formerly known as Twitter). More broadly, it reflects on the political and affective nature of absence and presence in relation to heritage things and feminist discourses.

Alongside authors Gertjan Plets, Alexandra Ortolja-Baird and Jaap Verheul, Julianne Nyhan and Andrew Flinn’s chapter, ‘De-neutralising digital heritage infrastructures? Critical considerations on digital engagements with the past in the context of Europe’, interrogates the problem of ‘technology overtrust’ and the difficulties of decoding complex digital infrastructures that store and provide access to digital heritage and data. Two case studies – the ‘Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogues’ project and the Central Archaeological Inventory of the Flemish Government (Belgium) – are used to explore these key questions from different vantages: the absence of marginalised and minority voices in digital collections and ways to overcome this, and how users are impacted by digital platforms and the historical narratives that they encourage. The chapter is a call for the critical assessment of digital heritage infrastructures that can make plain their affordances and biases in order to support ethical collections management and access as well as more critical interpretation of collections by both expert and non-expert end-users.

The book is available fully open access through UCL Press.

More about the book:

Cultural and natural heritage are central to ‘Europe’ and ‘the European project’. They were bound up in the emergence of nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where they were used to justify differences over which border conflicts were fought. Later, the idea of a ‘common European heritage’ provided a rationale for the development of the European Union.

Now, the emergence of ‘new’ populist nationalisms shows how the imagined past continues to play a role in cultural and social governance, while a series of interlinked social and ecological crises are changing the ways that heritage operates. New discourses and ontologies are emerging to reconfigure heritage for the circumstances of the present and the uncertainties of the future.

Taking the current role of heritage in Europe as its starting point, Critical Heritage Studies and the Futures of Europe presents a number of case studies that explore key themes in this transformation. Contributors draw on a range of disciplinary perspectives to consider, variously, the role of heritage and museums in the migration and climate ‘emergencies’; approaches to urban heritage conservation and practices of curating cities; digital and digitised heritage; the use of heritage as a therapeutic resource; and critical approaches to heritage and its management. Taken together, the chapters explore the multiple ontologies through which cultural and natural heritage have actively intervened in redrawing the futures of Europe and the world.

The fully open access monograph may be downloaded from the UCL Press website.

The CHEurope project, which ran from 2016-2021, was a collaboration involving the University of Gotheburg, UCL, University of Amsterdam, University Institute of Lisbon, Spanish National Research Council, University of Hasselt, University of Utrecht, Istituto per i Beni Artistici Culturali e Ambientali della Regione Emilia Romagna and was funded under the Horizon Europe MSCA-ITN-2016 – Innovative Training Networks call.

Further details

Posted By Anna Sexton, Authored by Hannah Smyth