The Allure of the Archive

COVID-19 has deeply affected our lives in a variety of ways. I’ve still got exams to prep for though, and while at times it’s been difficult to focus, I’ve continued working through my reading lists. Today then, I’d like to start talking about my second reading list, which focuses on archival theory and digital humanities. I’ve just about finished this list, but over the next few weeks, I’ll share my thoughts about it with you.

To start things off, my first sublist considers the definition of an archive, and more specifically what draws us as scholars to this kind of research. Not surprisingly, the definitions of an archive vary, encompassing everything from a repository of documents, to an epistemological framework that dictates knowledge through the discourses it enables or limits, as Michel Foucault argues. When it comes to the allure of archival research, justifications also vary, whether it’s the tactile experience of working with older documents and the inherited historical practice that comes with it, as Carolyn Steedman posits in Dust, or Jacques Derrida’s assertion that archival research constitutes an ultimately futile pursuit for origin stories while simultaneously burying any actual memories in documents. Still other scholars like Diana Taylor advocate for the repertoire, an embodied form of knowledge enacted through performance that works closely with the more textual, object-based nature of the archive (as an example she cites the wedding: you need the license, but what everyone remembers is the ‘I do’s’). All in all, it’s some of the more theoretical reading I’ve done recently, but I’ve really been enjoying it.

Naturally, I’ve been thinking about these ideas in relation to my previous work on the Roswell Museum archive, as well as future expeditions to other repositories. Taylor’s argument about the repertoire, in particular, intrigues me with regard to a mystery play that was performed at the Museum in 1938. Performed within Roswell’s Hispanic community since at least the 1850s, the play known as Los Pastores belonged to an established oral tradition, one that reflected both the medieval European mystery plays from which it was likely descended, as well as more regional embodiments specific to southeastern New Mexico. Its performance at the Roswell Museum represented a seminal moment in its own history, as that was the first known occasion that it was performed not only at the museum, but specifically for an audience outside the Chihuahita community. How did that movement in space and audience affect the play’s performance? How did the actors and audience together use their bodies to create and share meaning? What knowledge do we miss when we rely exclusively on photographs or newspaper writeups from the time? The validity of performance as a form of knowledge is something I’ve been thinking about since participating in last year’s annual conference for the Space Between Society, so it’s been engaging to delve into its theories a little more deeply.

The cast of Los Pastores, 1938.

Another idea that’s particularly intrigued me is the idea of absence or fragments, a concept that Zeb Tortorici explores in his article, “Archival Seduction: Indexical Absences and Hagiographic Ghosts.” Based on his research as the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico City, Tortorici argues that the appeal of archival documents comes from its fragmentary nature. While historical documents offer tantalizing windows into the past, what they yield is a fragmented perspective. No document can ever successfully offer an objective window into the past, yet the appeal remains due to their tactile nature. They were physically there, after all, and remain an alluring physical link.

The Archivo General de la Nacion, Mexico City. Photo by Miguel Angel Marquez – https://ddd.uab.cat/record/211778, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83037981

More specifically, Tortorici argues for the allure of fragments: documents that are, in the case of indexical absences, referenced in documents but no longer extant, and in the case of hagiographic ghosts, known only through the hearsay of secondary literature. For Tortorici, the appeal of these documents comes from their refusal to conform to an established narrative, thereby revealing history itself as a construct rather than a natural state. Additionally, because they provide so little information, fragments invite speculation and the potential for discovery even while they refuse to provide any closure through information. In short, fragments represent the tantalizing unanswered questions of archival research, remnants that stand out for their resistance to narrativization.

Thinking back to the Roswell Museum archive, there are documents with incomplete stories, if not outright absences. The letter above was composed by an elementary school class that visited the museum in 1938, and represents one of the few extant surviving documents from actual visitors. For the most part, we only know what we thought about the museum through the writings of staff members, so to have something from the students themselves is quite extraordinary. Yet its allure comes in part from its own brevity. Who visited the museum that day? Does this thank-you note represent the collective opinion of all the students, or did some pupils enjoy their visit more than others? What were the “many interesting things” that they learned, and what did they see? How did Rainey Woolsey herself, the woman who led the visit, feel about this experience?

Even more tantalizing is a reference to a disagreement that occurred between Domingo Tejada, who supervised the design and carving of the Roswell Museum’s wooden furniture, and his assistant, Trinidad Bernal. The disagreement survives through references the correspondence between the museum’s director and the state director for the FAP, Russell Vernon Hunter. According to the administrators, the disagreement seems to have stemmed from the degree of oversight Bernal needed from Tejada to do his work, with the latter being resentful for not having his skills recognized. Other letters suggest that Tejada was in high demand for furniture around the state, and relied on Bernal to help him stay on schedule without going overtime. Perhaps Bernal didn’t feel appreciated for his efforts, or thought he could take more initiative in the studio. Yet without documents from Bernal and Tejada themselves, we can only speculate on what they argued over, or how they felt about the situation. Did they disagree over specific designs? Did they have different working styles? Did Bernal want to work on certain pieces, while Tejada had other projects in mind? As with the letter from the school group, the references in the correspondence offer tantalizing glimpses into the lives of the people who worked there, but without providing a complete narrative or story.

Looking into the main gallery with Tejada’s furniture on view. What conversations revolved around the creation of these pieces?

Historical curiosities aside, why does any of this matter? Because archives are about people. They are written by people, they talk about people, and people use them. Fragments and incompletions remind us that whenever we write history, we need to remember that we’re addressing real people who lived unique lives, and that telling narratives at the expense of eliding that uniqueness, or projecting your own speculations without acknowledging them as such, has its own ethical perils. Just as Foucault argues that the archives aren’t so much an enclosed repository of documents as they are an ongoing discourse and epistemological framework, so history is an ongoing process, one that also remains incomplete and full of fragments.

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