What’s in an Archive?
‘The archive,’ writes Michel Foucault, ‘is the first law of what can be written.’ In Ireland, where historical events play out in contemporary politics and collective memory is evoked in the street names of every city and town, even the primary materials we use to write history become politicised. The archive is a fundamental component in historical revelation, yet the creation and cataloguing of an archive can simultaneously obscure as much as it exposes.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have interrogated this sentiment in their photography project People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground. The work is based on images contained in the Belfast Exposed Archive, a collection of 14,000 stills taken by journalists and citizen photographers across the entire chronology of the Northern Irish Troubles. Initiated in 1983, the archival impulse developed from a desire to collate the underrepresented imagery and perspectives of young working class Belfast dwellers living amidst a grim civil war. Chosen for content rather than style, successive archivists labeled each image with coloured stickers according to the photographer’s subject: from protests and riots to scenes of quotidian existence.
Broomberg and Chanarin lifted these stickers in order to discover what historical perspectives had unwittingly become obscured. The book consists solely of the imagery they found beneath the adhesive. In doing so, the work interrogates the cataloguing process of the Belfast Exposed Archive, making a universal statement regarding what can become lost in the archival process. The successive individuals, who assisted in creating the documentation of the Belfast Exposed Archive, engaged in this obfuscation unwittingly. Indeed, the intention was not to hide but to make the documents more easily searchable. However, archives can also become imbued with their own intended partiality.
Trawling the invaluable sources contained in the Irish Queer Archive, which documents the movement for gay liberation in Ireland, one becomes particularly aware of a dominant narrative emanating from the archive’s structure. The archive was established and is maintained by the National Gay Federation (Now the National Lesbian and Gay Federation). As such, their organisational and administrative files hold primacy in the cataloguing process. The historical reality, that NGF’s influence in the wider gay movement declined enormously from 1983 onwards, is obscured by the volume of administrative papers produced by the group. Herein lies a recurring historiographical problem, how does an historian avoid giving undue import to a movement due to the amount of primary sources their existence created.? As another example, the emergence of far left groups amongst Irish university students in the sixties and seventies generated boxes of state intelligence reports. Often, however, their membership never grew beyond twenty, somewhat juvenile, radicals.
There is another issue with prioritisation in cataloguing, the aversion of dissenting voices. The movement for gay rights in Ireland was marked by internal acrimony. In 1990, lesbian activist Izzy Kamikaze noted that ‘The kindest thing to say about the NGF would that it was irrelevant.’ Where are these sentiments expressed in an archive run by the NGF? They are there (a testament to the chief archivist) yet their position is marginal. The independent journal Gaysock, which lambasted the NGF hierarchy from 1981 to 1983 remains uncatalogued and thus unavailable to the average researcher. Furthermore, there is also a somewhat existential aspect that historians must consider when approaching this evidently partial archive: latent within these often internecine debates is distinct emotiveness. These factions debated not only definitions of a political campaign. Fundamentally, they were redefining how best to present an innate part of themselves to an often-uncomprehending society. One can thereby perceive a perhaps subconscious explanation for the archive’s impulse to obscure.
Fundamentally, archives can not be held as paragons of historical revelation. They are innately flawed, often in ways that are unique to the nature of the archive. For archival historians, the imperative is to locate these unique distinctions in their primary material so that there analogues can be found elsewhere. The contents of these archives unearth new historical narratives, yet there is always something more to be unearthed from within their structure.