Thursday, December 29, 2005

Archives and the State

On several occasions SQA has had cause to express concern about the fate of various national or state archives including those of Kosovo (see our previous blog Seeing Stars.)

Eamon de Valera

We have been prompted to look at the subject anew following the announcement earlier in 2005 that the archive of Eamon de Valera the Irish rebel and statesman has been listed by University College Dublin's Archives, part of the School of History and Archives.

What particularly caught our eye was the preamble to the press release. This comprises the quotation History is made with documents. Documents are the imprints left of the thoughts and the deeds of the men of former times. For nothing can take the place of documents. No documents, no history from Charles Seignobos' Histoire de la civilisation contemporaine (1920), translated by de Valera in a letter from prison to Kathleen O'Connell, his personal secretary dated 2 February 1924, in which he enjoins her to safeguard his papers.

The Four Courts under Free State artillery bombardment

Our sense or irony immediately springs to the fore and we are reminded of the contrasting events of 28-30 June 1922 when during the Irish Civil War the Four Courts in Dublin, home of the Public Record Office of Ireland, were bombarded and blown up by Michael Collins' pro-treaty Free State Army. To quote Wikipedia the Irish Public Records [sic] Office was the centre of a huge explosion, blowing to pieces one thousand years of Irish state and religious archives. The mushroom cloud resulting from the explosion of the landmine rose to 2000 feet and fragments of medieval records fluttered down over the city. The only archives to survive were those locked in the safe overnight for use the following day. This momentous event resulted in decades of only partially successful national archival reconstruction by the rebuilt Public Record Office, now relocated and renamed the National Archives of Ireland and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Michael Collins

At the time, Michael Collins commented with perverse satisfaction better a state with no archives than an archives with no state. So much for consistency in Irish nationalist politics and the views of his ally de Valera.

However, the expedient destruction of state archives can be found closer to our own times. Not only did premature European Union recognition of Croatia in 1992 lead to the break up of Yugoslavia and the destruction of the Kosovo State Archives (see again our previous blog Seeing Stars) but it now appears that the state archives of Iraq were deliberately and expediently placed at the mercy of Iraqi looters by US troops. This sad news was revealed by the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung in May 2003 and came to our notice in an article in The Guardian of 28 December 2005 entitled Shock, awe and Hobbes have backfired on America's neocons by Dr. Richard Drayton, senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University.

Dr. Richard Drayton

Drayton writes it has been usual to explain the chaos and looting in Baghdad, the destruction of infrastructure, ministries, museums and the national library and archives, as caused by a failure of Rumsfeld's planning. But the German newspaper quotes US soldiers as saying to looters go in Ali Baba, it's all yours! Drayton explains this was a deliberate part of the US strategy which he says was at least in part a mask for the destruction of the collective memory and modern state of a key Arab create a hunger for the occupier's supervision.

Yet again we are reminded of George Orwell's novel 1984 whose significance in the archival context we have blogged several times (see again Seeing Stars, Chaos in Kent and Patrimony or Patriotism? and of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 also mentioned in Patrimony or Patriotism?)

The sequel to Irish and Iraqi events is disturbing and the ironies of national politics extend from Ireland to Britain. The UK National Archives (TNA) web site reports it is providing assistance to the Iraqi authorities. We quote (abbreviations expanded):

Dr Saad Eskander, Director-General of the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA), met the Chief Executive of The National Archives on the 13 May 2005. It was agreed that TNA would:

Provide INLA with a microfilm of records relating to Iraq 1921-1933 from series CO 730.
Identify experts for a short training course in Amman for Iraqi archive professionals.
Provide expert advice on specific issues as new legislation is developed.
Under the auspices of the International Council on Archives, offer support to reinforce the remit of INLA.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the British Library noted that they were also involved in developments with Iraq and asked to be kept informed of developments.

So there we have it. The UK government on the one hand gleefully assists US foreign policy and strategy in Iraq to the extent it collaborates with the destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage including archives but on the other hand makes an expedient and symbolic gesture of reconstruction using TNA as a stooge.

TNA is thus participating in a form of social engineering in Iraq which has involved the deliberate destruction of a state archives, reminiscent of Dublin in 1922 or Kosovo in 1999. This provides archivists with reason for cynicism as Designation Status and Blue Shield status start to look shallow and meaningless when faced with overriding geo-political expediencies.

Can we look forward to an expedient EU orchestrated destruction of Britain's highly inconvenient archives as the home of democracy and the English speaking world?

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