12 Replies to “Of communities rather than About communities”

  1. I think one of the important takeaways this week is that archiving and curation are inherently political acts, even if we fail to recognize them as such. Systems of oppression don’t magically appear out of thin air during moments of social protest; they are always present, and our cultural institutions are both the result of a problematic history, and active spreaders of ideology. The BLM movement is about much more than police violence. Eras of social unrest are opportunities for all of us to look behind the ideological curtain and ask hard questions about our positions of privilege.
    Jarrett Drake, and Shilton and Srinivasan, advocate for communities to essentially archive themselves, pushing professional archivists and cultural institutions into a supporting role. This is a way that those of us who are not embedded in these communities can act as allies, but it is important to realize that allyship does not mean that the results will be to the allies’ liking. Every community gets to decide for itself what is important, including prioritizing values that are not the same as those of the (white, cis, largely male) professional class.
    You bring up the National Museum of African American History and Culture (which I am really curious about), but I want to connect this discussion to the last new museum on the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian. When this museum opened in 2014, it faced immense criticism. I remember a lot of discussion in the vein of this review by Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher. Fisher claimed that the Smithsonian “accepted the trendy faux-selflessness of today’s historians and let the Indians present themselves as they wish to be seen” and criticized the way the museum failed to “ask good, skeptical questions” or give us “fact or narrative.” When I first visited this museum, I mostly agreed, though I recognized that this museum was never intended for me. It felt like an ahistorical celebration of native peoples, rather than a “proper museum.” The audience was the community.
    Today, I feel differently (and I’m saddened by evidence that the NMAI has shifted gears to draw a larger crowd). “We” don’t get to tell “them” how to represent themselves. To be allies, we need to drop our pretense of authority (there’s that word again) and, rather than make up all the rules, limit our role to offering advice in a generous spirit

    1. Jeff,

      I think you’re right in that no matter how we might try to be impartial, at the end of the day there will be always be some sort of political elements present in collections which will vary on the institutions we serve. I wonder if by recognizing and accepting that we will face inherent politicalness in the archiving profession, that this recognition will enable us as a profession to strive to be more vigilant with our actions. When working to develop a collection of a marginalized community, I really like your point that we should “drop our pretence of authority” and let those in the community lead the charge with information professionals offering guidance. I’ve never been to the National Museum of the American Indian, but that’s interesting that when it opened, some people criticized it for allowing the Native American community to present this museum that reflected what they wanted to see. It seems that the museum understood that the paramount audience for the museum was the Native American community.

      1. Hey Sarah,
        You should definitely check out the NMAI sometime. It’s just interesting to me how my mind has changed about that museum. When I originally visited the NMAI, I wanted to see some history. I wanted to see some facts. I didn’t think it was terrible, but I didn’t see the value in native peoples to presenting their own, non-factual version of their history. Their stories focused on the continuity of native traditions, while I was like “umm are we just ignoring the massive disruption in those traditions over the past 500 years?”

        Now, though, I find that continuity a lot more compelling. These are living human cultures, not ancient Sumerian artifacts. It is empowering for a people to be able to present their own story, told their own way, as part of the official story of the United States among so many other civic monuments. It’s inspiring to realize that we are still making room for more points of view.

        1. The whole point on NMAI focusing on showing and demonstrating that indigenous traditions are multifaceted and thriving is so important and also presents such a constant challenge to cultural heritage. Museums in particular have this power to make something “of the past” so it takes a ton of work to engage in collecting, preserving and exhibiting in a way that makes cultural heritage institutions part of the vital living expressions and celebrations of culture and not part of pinning things down behind glass as a look into the past. I do think this whole issue raises some significant challenges around “fixity” and “fluidity” of collections and cultural expressions that Ippolito and Rinehart were opening up in Re-Collection

  2. As archivists, we tend to forget that our job is to preserve the culture and history of our communities. We get so bogged down in the details of our work that we forget the bigger picture. I think you really highlighted the importance of the bigger picture here, Sarah. Jeff mentioned earlier that archiving is an inherently political act, whether we intend for it to be that way or not. Though we are trained to be as unbiased as possible when accessioning and processing material, it’s impossible for someone to remain entirely unswayed. It’s human nature. But this brings up the important fact that though we may be unintentionally biased, we still need to accurately and fairly represent the various aspects of a historical event. Ultimately, we are in charge of representing a moment in history and only giving one side of the story would be doing an injustice to the community and the past.

    1. Kerri,

      I really like the point you made about how it’s almost human nature that we are unintentionally biased. I think it is imperative that we stop and think about how and why we are collecting items, and how we describe them, as you indicated that our actions will have an effect on the general public. Your thoughts about how we should accurately and fairly represent the all sides of historical events reminded me of my husband’s reaction to the Texas Civil War museum in my home town. For starters, he’s from Massachusetts and was taken to this museum by my dad while I was busy at some sort of wedding shower, so he was already very much out of his element. Apparently the museum starts out with an opening 8-10 minute video and my husband said that “the lofty rhetoric made it seem as though the Confederacy were the real winners of the Civil War, and that Texas was the main reason for it.” Obviously both of those things aren’t true, and is a good example of not accurately reflecting all sides of historical events. Or maybe they are just appealing to their audience…..which is sad on a variety of other levels.

      1. Your example of the museum is something I feel is entirely too common in institutions, especially small ones. Many of them are backed by some sort of political agenda that obviously makes their collection strategy incredibly biased. I don’t think there will ever be a way to discontinue this unprofessional behavior in institutions, but I hope the public is as astute as your husband and can acknowledge the one-sided representations.

  3. Great post, and it’s really good for us to work out our understanding of these ideas together.

    I really like your title, the idea of focusing on “of communities” instead of “about communities.” You get some great mileage for that in the various posts. I like Jeff’s contribution to stressing that there is something political about all archiving. That is, there is always some kind of “side taking” at play in archiving.

    Given the institutional origins of archives it makes sense that their default, the baseline of any notion of an archive being “neutral” is embedded in the way of seeing the world that comes from those institutions. So the participatory concepts for archives and Drake’s call to move further into models of archivists as facilitators of communities archives largely act as a means to better identify the side taking that has been part of our defaults for so long.

    1. Trevor,

      I’m glad you like the title. When I read the Shilton and Srinivasan article, that sentence about being “of communities” really hit home as a way to frame my thinking when working on any type of collection. I really appreciate Jeff’s thoughts noting that there are parts of archiving that will always involve some taking of sides. When viewing institution’s actions historically, I like the point that you made that institutions have viewed themselves as impartial, but that was through the lens of the way that they viewed the world. That might not necessarily lend itself to highlighting marginalized communities.

  4. I really liked your post. I think you touched on one of the real “controversial” issues of trying to do right by the community you want to help, and by the look of all the comments I’d say other folks think so too. In this case, help would be archiving and preserving their culture, their community, their socio-political movement.
    I really connected on the part where you said that you felt like an ally but you valued the principle of being unbiased with collecting and preserving the cultural record. Pieces, like Drake’s presentation, have fortunately been getting much wider circulation, but it doesn’t necessarily make you feel any better when you can see some of the behaviors he criticizes in yourself. I won’t speak for you, but I’ve had to confront some tough truths that just meaning well and trying to help doesn’t always actually help someone. Especially when it means potentially drowning out their own voice. Even more recently I’ve seen how that same unintentional consequence can occur in archives.
    I think it’s great that the same kind of language I see about being an ally on Facebook and blogs is being used in an archival context.

    1. Great points on how all of this pushes archivists and librarians to understand and consider our own privilage and experiences. When we take serious the fact that our ways of seeing the world are written into the historical record as we make decisions about what to collect, what is significant about it, how to arrange it etc. and combine that with the fact that cultural heritage as a field is overwhelmingly a field staffed with folks with a lot of privilege to begin with it becomes all the more critical to focus on how we can become conscious of our own values and make sure we are being responsive to the communities we should be engaging with.

    2. Thomas,

      I was thinking the same thing earlier about how just “meaning well” doesn’t necessarily help others, and I especially agree with you on how we can unintentionally drown out the voices of the marginalized that we are trying to lift up. Some hard truths that I have to face is that I have to recognize that while I consider myself an ally, I still have some implicit biases of my own that could possibly make their way to the surface in my future career even when I have the best intentions.

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