I have ambivalent feelings about debates over the ownership of physical objects that have sacred or heritage value to one group or institution and knowledge-producing value to another group or institution, such as the struggle over Native American remains held by museums and academic institutions. I am less ambivalent about objects that are valued entirely for their aesthetics or heritage: those, I think, should be repatriated when it can be clearly established that they were stolen or taken without proper authorization. (Say, the Elgin marbles.)
In my earlier thread on Aluka, Diana Jeater observes that one of the corollary benefits of a digitization project like Aluka may be the repatriation of archival materials held in England back to African institutions, though she emphasizes other benefits of the project first and foremost. This issue wasn’t my primary concern about Aluka or any other digitization of archival records, but it is an interesting question in its own right.
To me, the very fact that we can digitize archives (including photographs) so effectively and usefully means that they are completely unlike unique objects of artistic or heritage value where there can be only one owner of the object, only one exhibitionary location. When we’re talking archives, I think our first goal should not be to renationalize archives, but to denationalize them.
One of my greatest concerns about Africanist scholarship is the degree to which it is intellectually and programmatically fixated on service to African sovereignty. (I’ll post a short think-piece on this subject here soon.) We shouldn’t be trying to put archives back under the control of African state institutions, but to get archives away from the control of those institutions. Not to put those archives instead under our own control, whether that means European or American governments or private institutions, but beyond the control of any institution.
Archival stewards, whether they’re dealing with digital or physical materials, have important responsibilities to catalog materials, insure their preservation, and so on. But they should not have the right or capacity to control who gets access to material. The only legitimate reason for that control now is so that a fragile resource environment does not get overwhelmed by heavy usage and to ensure against theft of materials by unauthorized users. The latter isn’t a concern in a digital context, and the former is a different kind of concern that does not require tight control. There is nothing that a scholar or intellectual can write about or with materials from an archive that justifies controlling access to them, no legitimate “sovereign” right to oversee or supervise the production of knowledge out of an archive.
Frederick Cooper has characterized most contemporary African nation-states as “gatekeepers”, rent-seekers who are dependent on traffic in and out of their sovereignties. Africanist scholars have often had to bow in the past to gatekeeping in order to get access to archival material, because to see it, you had to pass through the borders of a given nation. Even before the disastrous collapse of Zimbabwe after 1998, it took up to two years to get clearance to do work in the archives there. Not so much because of direct authoritarian fears about what researchers might find, but simply to drive home the fact of Zimbabwean sovereignty and to maximize the rents that might be claimed along the way.
I think there are ways to direct money to African intellectuals and scholars from global knowledge-production about Africa (and Aluka seems to be a good model for doing so), but it is crucial to do so in such a way that the gatekeeper state is cut out of the loop. Once archives escape into a digital space, they shouldn’t belong to either Rhodes House or to Zimbabwe (or, in my view, Aluka), and that is as it should be. Scholars on any continent should be free from the fixed costs involved in having to travel to a place in order to study archival material; travel to a place that we’re studying should be about producing those kinds of knowledge which require presence and direct engagement.
If we’re serious about the “struggle for freedom” in southern Africa, then let’s pursue freedom. Not “freedom” for gatekeeper sovereignties in the form of new rents to seek, but freedom from rent-seekers. Freedom to know and think and write, for Africans and Africanists alike. Not just for Africa: all archives created by states everywhere should be pried loose from their control, whether we’re talking about the materials held by the United States government or the materials held by the government of Angola. Public money for stewardship, but not for the protection of political sensitivities or bogus claims about national security.