Interpreting History through Records: The Participatory Nature of Archives

An archivist breathes life into inanimate records and helps us to understand our present more comprehensively, writes corporate archivist Sanghamitra Chatterjee.

Pirojshanagar
An overview of exhibition titled ‘Pirojshanagar: Then and Now’ curated by Godrej Archives on the 60th anniversary of the Godrej township in Pirojshanagar, Vikhroli. Image courtesy: Godrej Archives

I have been an archivist with Godrej Archives since its inception in 2006. Being an archivist has made me more sensitive to history – not as a student, but as a facilitator or a ‘history producer’[1]. While the need to glean meaning from the past is an essential tool for any society, culture or institution, there can be no learning unless that past is preserved, interpreted and showcased.

There can be no history without documentary evidence of the past and an archive offers the most direct access to that evidence. It contains original records, such as letters, diaries and photographs (to name a few) that have not been altered or distorted in any way and have permanent historical value for society. Biographers, historians, genealogists, sociologists, economists, and others use this original material to analyze the past, understand the present and prepare society for the future.

Kate Theimer urges us to think of archives as “similar to an industry which mined a rare material out of the earth, refined it, and then sold it to customers, who then used the material to produce finished products for consumers”. The archives collects the raw materials—records and manuscripts—and “refines” them, as one would a natural resource, by processing them and producing descriptions of them and ‘sold’ them or made them accessible against a fee.

National Archives DelhiNational Archives India in New Delhi. Image courtesy their website. 

In India, legislative acts have ensured that the State maintains its records scientifically through the National Archives of India and the various state archives. The holdings of these archives have been a useful tool in understanding the impact of British imperialism on India as a nation.

Jayaprabha Ravindran, Assistant Director of Archives at National Archives of India, notes that while British scholars focused on the achievements of colonialism in India, “it did not take too long for nationalist historians to counter the theory of the ‘White Man’s burden’. The theory of the economic drain of the country was based on the facts and figures collected from among the files in NAI.”

She further notes that in the first two decades after independence, topics relating to the socio-cultural history of India were almost unheard of, but by the beginning of 1970s subjects like caste distribution, social mobility, cultural history, etc. started becoming popular. However, archives are not the stronghold of ‘bonafide researchers’ alone and an increasing number of independent researchers seek access to collections. A noteworthy group among them is the descendants of indentured Indian laborers who now wish to know more about their roots and the circumstances in which their forefathers left India.

Sadly, though, institutionalization of memory and information is still rare in our country. A few educational institutions and business houses, though, have invested in archiving and studying the evolution of their institutions through their own records. These archives are not only assisting the institute to sort, select and store historically important records but have also been playing an important role in communicating to the outside world their contribution to the country, its society and its people.

Godrej Archives' Museum of Memories (2012)Museum of Memories, 2012. Image courtesy Godrej Archives.

At the 35th Session of Indian National Congress at Nagpur (1920), founder of the Godrej Group, Ardeshir Godrej, announced a donation of INR 3 lakhs to start the Tilak Swaraj Fund for liquor prohibition and the upliftment of the suppressed classes. Today, Ardeshir’s gesture of philanthropy has grown into Godrej’s corporate policy on CSR. The Godrej family and the company’s philanthropic activities are amply verified by letters, receipts and case studies collected by Godrej Archives. This is just one example of how some institutions are taking the time to delve into their history in order to build an organizational culture.

For all the opportunities that archives offer, they also structure and limit our understanding of the past. The controlling body – the State, an institution or even the Church (particularly in the West), governs the decision of what records to keep and what to set aside. Thus, evidence in archives is not simply descriptive of the past, but prescriptive of how a people understood their present and wanted later generations to understand the past.

And then there is the tricky problem of classified or closed records. Several Ministry of External Affairs files in the NAI are still classified. Private archives may choose to restrict access to property papers, while business archives will most certainly keep material of a certain kind away from competitors. The matter is complex enough to make up an entire post and hence I will refrain from discussing it here.

Lastly, traditional archives also remain passive to experiential memory. By its very nature, it focuses on the written word and therefore oral histories do not always find refuge in an archive. It is heartening to note that several private archives in India are actively seeking oral records to help historians lend shape to history. In this regard, a special mention ought to be made about the work done by Dr. Indira Chowdhury of the Centre for Public History, at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, in spreading awareness about the benefits of the medium. One can read more about how Dr. Chowdhury has used recorded interviews to document the histories of IIM-Calcutta and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research here.

An overview of exhibition titled ‘Pirojshanagar: Then and Now’ Image courtesy: Godrej Archives. 

Godrej Archives has been collaborating with artists to indulge in ‘Archival Art’ or art inspired by history / archives. Museum of Memories (2012) was our first attempt at exploring this possibility. Installations with everyday items such as carton boxes, drums and sacks that one sees regularly in a factory against a collage of archival factory images were created by artist Kushal Mahant. In the last couple of years, Godrej Archives has opened its doors to several artists who have taken inspiration from some of Godrej’s iconic products.

Re-imagining the Archive
“How do societies remember?” asks Sunil Khilnani, “What resources and materials are we, in the here and now, prepared to leave to those who come after to enable them to make sense of our own helter-skelter age?” It is a pertinent question. Preserving the present as it happens, is not always a priority within the archiving community the world over. Each day as history gets played out, it is imperative that archivists turn their attention back to the everyday and document that everyday for future historians.

The impact of technology, influx of social media, open data and ‘big data’ is transforming the very nature of ‘record’ and also the way in which people and organizations behave, communicate and carry out their business.

In this rapidly evolving digital world, archives have to change in order to keep up with and meet the challenges of the present. The notion that archivists are mere record keepers and not interpreters or communicators is also undergoing change. An archivist is now expected to breathe life into the otherwise inanimate records, to re-interpret and make new constructs available that can help us understand our present more comprehensively.

Communication tools such as a website, social media, journals, and other publications can come to the aid of archivists to present old records within a curatorial context. Thus, the formerly sharp differences between libraries, museums and archives are beginning to blur, although functional distinctions remain. The future of archives is participatory.

[1] Antoon de Baets, Professor of History, Ethics and Human Rights, University of Groningen, Netherlands describes a ‘History Producer’ as anyone involved in the collection, creation or transmission of history, including archivists.

About the Author

Sanghamitra ChatterjeeSanghamitra Chatterjee is a consultant corporate archivist based in Mumbai. She has been involved with the Godrej Archives from its inception in 2006. Follow her on Twitter.

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