This weekend I went home, and it was pretty nice to see my friends and family again. Plus, I got a few free meals, so I cannot complain. However, as eager as I assume you all are to hear an in depth account of my homecoming, that is not the main topic of this post. Rather, the reason I mention my trip home is that it reminded me of a book chapter I read in the first few weeks of term concerning archives, and more specifically the question of what exactly constitutes one. As whilst for many people the traditional image of the archive as a vast, imposing building whose secrets are guarded by an arcane set of rules and procedures still holds, the fragmentation of history into ever more specific genres and sub-genres mean that this opinion has increasingly been challenged.
The chapter in question is the first chapter of Antoinette Burton’s Dwelling in the Archive, which focuses on the experience of three Indian women during the early to mid-twentieth century. Burton’s central hypothesis is that whilst women in late colonial era India were not necessarily visible political actors in the public sphere, their power in the domestic sphere meant that they did exert considerable influence over socio-political events and issues. As such, if one wants to write a history of these women, it is no use using a conventional archive, as their battles did not play out in the open or through the traditional channels of power. Rather, the best places to investigate are the women’s homes, as only they contain all the items which hold the memories of these events.
Certainly, Burton has a valid point. The traditional, central archive does have several important functions, notably the preservation of official documents or as copyright libraries; but to see them as the sole repositories of knowledge is no longer credible, as the rise of social, cultural and oral history (amongst others) have forced us to reconsider what exactly constitutes a historical source. For example a person’s choice of ornaments, furniture and even appliances all speak both of the person who bought them and of the times in which they were produced; and personal items such as photos, diaries and home films give us a unique insight into their lives and the society in which they lived, but these are all objects which would not necessarily make it into any central archives.
However, there are two downsides to this view, the first of which is that it may encourage that ever pernicious habit of hoarding. We all do it to some extent, but my worry is that if we all suddenly arrived at the conclusion that even the most mundane object is one which could potentially unlock some hitherto unknown historical perspective we would never throw anything away for fear of losing an irreplaceable part of our national history.
Admittedly that is taking such a view to its logical (and thus farcical) extremes, and we must remember that we can never know what a future historian will consider significant. Tales abound of collections of documents or artefacts being discarded as junk, but which are now seen as central to our understanding or appreciation of a period or event. Whilst we certainly cannot collect everything just in case it later turns out to be of some historical value, nor can we wantonly discard anything that does not fit into what we presently consider to be ‘important’.
The other problem is that if we deem everything to be of historical value, it could lead to the paradoxical situation where nothing has any historical value. After all, if everything has some historical importance, what is the difference between Westminster and my garden shed? It is for this reason that I have a sneaking envy for the historians of old. Criticise them all you want, but what they lacked in historical nuance they more than made up for in the certainty of their convictions. They knew that there were a set of definitively important people and events. Yes, you could debate in intricate (read, tedious) detail about exactly how important they were, but outside of these select few, nothing else really mattered.
Obviously, I do not agree with this train of thought. Just as with my first example it is an idea carried to ludicrous extremes, but it is one which I have heard an alarming number of people express. It commits the fallacy of assuming that there is some sort of hierarchy of history, and that to treat political history the same as cultural or social history is to somehow debase the former, and ascribe to the latter a prominence which it does not deserve. Because at the end of the day Westminster and my shed are just as important, and indeed unimportant, as each other. If I was researching Britain’s Cold War diplomatic policy, then certainly it would be foolish to seek answers in the shed; but similarly Westminster would be just as useless for studying changes in how people used and cultivated domestic land.
Overall, for all the problems seeing a house or a shed as an archive raises, it opens up far more possibilities. Even the most mundane building contains and produces a host of objects lacking in any immediately obvious historical significance, but which all contain memories and associations which, when used properly, can be the basis of a truly fascinating history. All of these archives are different, but their difference is not one of degrees, but of how they are used and we must remember this, lest we fall into the old trap of seeing one type of history as ‘real’ history, and all the others as distractions without any real intellectual value.
 Antoinette Burton, Dwelling in the Archives: Women Writing House, Home and History in Late Colonial India (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003) 3 – 30.