Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Archives don’t matter, it’s official

Our readers may be aware of a new campaign called History Matters - Pass it On

It sounds harmless enough and we can hear the usual voices welcoming the campaign as a buttress to the Archives Awareness Campaign, in the vein of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? series.

However, on closer inspection, the campaign shows the usual superficial concern for the obvious, eye-hitting parts of our heritage, i.e. the built heritage, concentration on which has been criticised by SQA previously (see Taking advantage of the London Olympics)

The built heritage obsession is this time indicated by the names of the organisations supporting the campaign: the National Trust, English Heritage, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Council for British Archaeology, Heritage Link, Historic Houses Association and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. There is no mention of the National Archives, National Council on Archives or even the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

Adam Hart-Davis

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 8 June 2006 signed by among others David Starkey and Adam Hart-Davis, the authors explain they wish to raise public awareness of history and especially the historic environment.

Neither is there any real evidence of networking such as would benefit the world of archivists, archives and their users.

We asked our principal spokesman Benedict Crumplethorne to comment.

I just give up. Not only are archives excluded from people’s awareness despite the efforts of the Archives Awareness Campaign, we are led to believe archives don’t even form part of our environment. Well, I suppose the word environment, introduced to British public life by Michael Heseltine, tends to be associated with buildings, landscapes and planning matters but surely in the fullest meaning of the word archives do form part of our environment.

In any case, the backers of the History Matters Campaign also claim history is what makes us human: it is collective memory and the country that has lost its sense of history has ceased to be itself. In truth, historic buildings are not a collective memory and we are being deceived. We remember nothing because of Stonehenge; we don’t know who built Stonehenge or why. However it can be said of archives that they do represent our collective memory so why aren’t they included?

The answer I am afraid is that archives are inconveniently hidden away, viewed as intelligible only to the erudite and time consuming. And besides, when visiting an archives office you can’t lick away at an ice cream, use your mobile telephone and spread out the tartan car rug and settle down to a picnic. Not even online access can shift opinion, so sooner or later rather than stimulate droves of public into visiting archives offices to do their family history, it will be necessary for archives organisations to recognise reality.

We need to back away from yet more awareness campaigns and concentrate on making archives available to the erudite for a change.

We thanked Benedict for his views.

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