Archives, Nations, Ownership

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.

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18 Responses to Archives, Nations, Ownership

  1. djeater says:

    I wonder whether the barriers erected by the gatekeepers of archives in African states are more than minor gnat bites, compared with the massive barriers erected by global inequalities that prevent African scholars from consulting archives in wealthy nations? The demand that African governments should ‘free up their archives’ sounds a little too similar to the demand that poor countries should ‘free up their markets’ for me to be comfortable with it.

    On the separate point, I agree that there’s nothing to match the buzz of actually handling the original archive.

  2. withywindle says:

    Not with you on the Elgin marbles … and not all claims of national security are bogus … but these are other debates … I’m a little skeptical about digitization as the road to archival utopia. There’s still the point of wanting to check up on the originals, as against the magically photoshopped digital versions. (“We have always been at war with Eastasia; see, the digital archive proves it!”) Then tactile qualities matter–this may matter more for ancient and medieval documents, but still–palimpsest possibilities–the vague possibility the scanning procedure was imperfect. Which is to say, I probably do still want physical archives to exist, and I do want at least some historians to continue to consult them. I think, if you follow my preference, that this means that some rentseeking and bureaucracy in the archives are still unavoidable. I’m all for massive digitization–heck, my own dissertation depended largely on Early English Books Online–but I think one should have a slightly more subdued sense of the possibilities accruing.

  3. emschwar says:

    withywindle, don’t you think Tim’s proposal to denationalize archives would make it harder to have always been at war with Eastasia? When someone can easily double-check the local digital archive against the 37 other copies in various other countries, it’s less useful to tweak one version to say what you want… you’d have to get all of them, or at least a significant majority of them, at once, so you can blame the few you didn’t get to on the enemy du jour. It’s one thing to have only one digitized archive; having hundreds changes the dynamic in a completely different way.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    The tactile matters. The security of originals matters.

    But if we’re talking equity, then I think digitization without national gatekeepers has egalitarian implications for scholars in Africa and outside of it. A historian teaching in Botswana or any other southern African nation is hit hard by any costs incurred for travel to archives save those in the same city as his or her institution. Moreover, given the extent to which academics in most African nations have to work second or third jobs simply to make ends meet, the time it takes to sit uninterrupted in a physical archive is economically precious. Access to a large range of digital records from various nations, on the other hand, not only eliminates the costs of travel (and the difficulties of crossing borders) but potentially allows research to be fit into other kinds of work in a much more interstitial manner.

    So unless “free up the archives” means “allow scholars in Africa digital access, but keep barriers up to put scholars in Europe and America at a competitive disadvantage”, I don’t see how “freeing up the archives” is anything like the impact of globalization on markets. Or perhaps I do, if the argument is actually on behalf of a kind of intellectual protectionism.

  5. fran says:

    I agree about the gatekeepers needing to be removed, but there are all kinds of gatekeepers. In African (and Asian) countries they are annoying and corrupt officials who harass researchers, who have the resources to actually travel there. In the West they are the more genteel and impersonal visa and exchange rate regulations that make it nearly impossible for so many scholars from African or Asian institutions to even contemplate travelling to the british library or the library of congress to access all the “open” resources there.

  6. djeater says:

    I agree with Tim that digitisation is an excellent way to open up archives to everyone. That’s why I strongly support what Aluka is doing. But I remain doubtful about whether it removes gatekeepers.
    It seems to me that the question of who decides what is to be digitised – and who pays for it – reduces to a matter of gatekeeping. And because digitisation is very expensive, the power to set agendas and choose what should be accessible is taken away from nation states and shifts even more towards the wealthier nations and their sources of funding. Economic power trumps political power: neocolonialism triumphs.
    I guess this boils down to whether it is important for nations to be able to control their own history, and whether ‘the nation’ equates with ‘the state’ in this context. I know that this matters a lot to Zimbabweans, who want to be able to produce their own versions of their past, but don’t currently operate with a level playing-field. For all its potential benefits, digitisation has gatekeeping problems of its own.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    At least initially it does. But the more that gets digitized, the more that gatekeeping becomes irrelevant.

    Neither the nation nor the state should control the production of their own history. Zimbabweans already produce their own versions of the past in conversation, in collective memory, and so on, and a lot of the histories that they produce are neither the official state version of the past nor are they national histories. National histories are “usable pasts”, and I think we’ve had quite enough of those: pasts which are neatly usable by the nation are pasts which often get used against histories (and people) which tell other kinds of stories. If we’re hoping that digitization makes it possible for the production of history within African societies by both scholars and non-scholars to become more fully visible within print, then I think that’s a desire which is very much not about control of any kind by any institution.

  8. withywindle says:

    For Emschwar–I have nightmares of some Orwellian computer technology that can disable every digital archive everywhere. So rah digitization, but have a backup plan in case it goes horribly wrong.

  9. djeater says:

    Completely agree with you there, Tim. I guess I’m focusing more on managing the transition, whereas you’re mapping out the vision of where it would be good to reach. It’s a good conversation to have.

  10. withywindle says:

    Incidentally, it’s suspicion of corrupt gatekeepers, broadly speaking, that lies behind a good part of the unwillingness to repatriate artworks.

  11. withywindle says:

    Query: is there a good example of a corrupt, third-world archival institution that has managed the transition to openness and honesty? If so, then part of the conversation should be about how to transfer best practices to its peers.

  12. withywindle says:

    As for “neocolonialism triumphes” … I suspect the funding for digitization worldwide will come from the Rockefeller Foundation, Gates Foundation, Spielberg (who’s already funded the digitization of all Yiddish literature!), etc. … this brand of neocolonialism will come with a liberal, or perhaps techno-libertarian, face.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually, Withywindle, a lot of the archives I’ve worked in in southern Africa are themselves fairly open and well-managed. I haven’t been in the Zimbabwe archives since 1998, but they were doing very well with extremely limited resources. The issue in that case, and in many others, is not the archive itself, but the ways in which access to the archive is mediated through the state and through state-dominated civic institutions. The problem in Zimbabwe in the 1990s was first the Research Council and second the bureaucracy within the University of Zimbabwe (not at the departmental level, which again was fairly collegial and open), and then beyond that whatever barriers the state was putting on residency and entry for foreign nationals or on forms of dissemination and publication within the country by nationals and foreigners alike.

  14. jpool says:

    Two points re Withywindle: While concerns about corrupt gatekeepers (or putatively less competent museum professionals) are often the stated reason for concerns about repatriation, the real concerns, especially for larger institutions, are about setting a precedent that might decimate current pluder-derived and revenue/prestige producing collections. There are plenty of qualified proefessionals in Egypt, but what would the British Museum be without its stolen treasures?
    While the organizations you list might well fund digitization of European archives, in Ghana it’s the Danes (Danida) who are funding it. This doesn’t challenge your “liberal face” argument (though the current Danish administration is only “liberal” in the sense the word is given in Europe), but nor does it challenge Diana Jeater’s point about the setting of priorities for digitization. So, in the Ghana example (as I understand it), Danida has given funding priority to preservation of records from the era of the slave trade. There’s nothing wrong or sinister in this, but it does represent the research priorities of Danes rather than Ghanaians.

  15. withywindle says:

    1) Tim’s point speaks to JPool’s point. Even if one trusted the Egyptian museums to keep proper care of the artwork, one worries about what the other bureaucratic gatekeepers would do. And one can genuinely worry about corrupt gatekeepers while also wanting to keep one’s collections intact; not mutually exclusive, and both equally genuine motivations.

    2) What would be a Ghanaian research priority?

  16. jpool says:

    1) Sure, those could both be genuinely held. The first one one presumes to be about international access rather than simply national self-interest, where the second is simply institutional self-interest, as well as a highly selective belief in possesion through theft as determining the ownership of works of art. But, yes, one could genuinely believe both those things. I’m just not sure that they (major western museums refusing to repatriate plundered national treasures) do. Besides, what would that genuine concern about bureaucratic gatekeepers mean in the British Museum example? That Greek or Egyptian bureaucrats wouldn’t allow the world to view or study their national treasures? Really?

    2) There would of course be many Ghanaian research priorities, and some might well either dovetail with or find supporting materials in documents of the slave trade (the study of precolonial polities is of continuing interest for Ghanaian as well as foreign historians). One could respond to this question by noting that Ghanaians in general see the slave trade either as an embarassment or as a not terribly relavent part of the remote past, while the Danes are collectively fascinated by and guilt-ridden about the slave trade, as it forms their historical connection to Ghana. But some contemporary Ghanaian historians, such as Akosua Perbi, have worked to show that slavery and whether one is descended from slaves is of continuing relavance in Ghanaian history and society, so it’s not a matter of these concerns being wholly separate at the academic level, simply of them reflecting different institutional interests.
    There is a great deal of interest in Ghana, at both the popular and academic levels in 20th century history — the development of political institutions under colonial conditions being one popular theme — and while some of archival materials related to this have been microformed (and the Cooperative Africana Microform Project seems like a good model for the sort of institutional cooperation Tim’s been discussing), some of the originals are disintegrating (tropical heat + 1950s high acid paper = paint chips) and others lie uncatalogued waiting for some intrepid librarian/archivist-to-be to make sense of them.
    To give as example of institutional cooperation that is less uneven, though one that, to my knowledge, has not included a digitization component, the Norwegian Programme for Development, Research and Education (NUFU) has funded a research partnership with the University of Ghana which has helped to fund both graduate and post-graduate research. While one might note that this program, as directed by Per Hernæs, has tended to push research along certain lines, it has, as far as I can tell, also allowed a great deal of lattitude for researchers to pursue their own visions and interests, while centrally collecting oral and archival data.

  17. withywindle says:


    1) Thanks for the information on Ghanaian research interests.

    2) Yeah, I think one can worry that them national treasures wouldn’t be totally secure. They’d get sent back to Gatekeeper City, and go into storage; and somehow the money to get them out of storage wouldn’t get appropriated, and when it was appropriated, it would get diverted. A few items, the sort that can fit in a suitcase, would go missing, and be rumored to be in a private collection in Jiddah, by way of a private auction in Zurich, but who knows? The items that did get into the museum might not be preserved perfectly–and whatever money was provided for preservation in the initial round of publicity might leach off later. The museum would close for renovations and not re-open for several decades, at which point it would only be open on alternate Thursdays, except if you provided some money to the museum guard to let you in. And occasionally the smaller items would go on tour, after the Metropolitan Museum had paid tens of millions of dollars as a payoff, before even getting to the insurance costs.

    Or maybe it would work out better than all that. But I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

  18. jpool says:

    We’ve wandered off down a side point to the original post, but I’ll just say that, while that’s a very plausible sounding scenario, what with the place names and all, I tend to believe that the combined pressures of the international tourist market and concerns about international reputation/prestige would strongly mitigate against it, at least in the specific cases we’ve been talking about. That is, I would concede the point that there are in some cases/nations ruling kleptocracies who are not to be trusted and where it would be entirely ethical to hold off on repatriating plundered materials. I don’t, however, see that as applying to either Greece or Egypt, where there are strong enough national institutions, as well as a clearly demonstrated interest in their national antiquities.
    On the issue of touring exhibits, this is the situation already. If anything my concern would be that touring exhibits would prove so profitable that national citizens wouldn’t have much of a chance to view the objects.

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