The SAA defines access as either the ability or permission to locate (and retrieve) information; accessioning is defined as either transferring or taking custody of that information. What does it mean to both act upon archival materials – to acquire, control, circulate, and interpret their content – and have those actions curbed? In what instances is this circumscription a means of empowerment? How do we negotiate taboos and the politics of (moralized) discomfort in the archival space with respect to atrocity, and the words and images that capture (and/or objectify) its violence? This week, these issues were apparent in three projects from which I consumed archival materials: (1) MIT’s Visualizing Cultures website, (2) HSP’s “One Manly Soul” display, and (3) Ava DuVernay’s 13TH documentary.
Violent imagery and rhetoric (past and present) pervade American society. In 2006, the MIT Visualizing Cultures controversy centered on Japanese war propaganda from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Many picture labels objectified the caricatured, mutilated bodies of Chinese men by alluding to the beautiful aesthetics of war and Japanese portraiture. Some protestors focused on the flippant textual engagement of the creators and/or the circulation of the imagery used for promotion of the site. Images independent of text are not generally “unbiased;” they are decontextualized. In the archive, metadata itself is subjective. These decontextualized images of atrocity are evocative and we must be self-conscious of our own (objectifying) gazes. Meanwhile, other protestors took issue with the preservation and (re)publication of the propaganda itself. However, the censoring one’s own history is often disempowering. Historical atrocity should not be viewed as evidence of humiliation or failure (i.e., internalized victim-blaming), but be woven into an identifiable history from which a one can derive meaning and the impetus for change and self-advocacy.
On Off the Record, former SAA President Jackie Dooley published “Should a legal right to “archival privilege” be established?” – written by Frank Boles, another former SAA President and chair of SAA’s Government Affairs Working Group, back in 2013. In light of the recent Belfast Project controversy, wherein the subpoenaing of oral histories to use as evidence in a murder investigation roused the old “archival privilege” debate, Boles (in line with SAA’s official statement on the incident) opts not to commit to any particular stance. Rather, he affirms the professional and legal context surrounding the issue – intra-archival acrimony and the currently unrecognized right to confidentiality for scholars and archivists. Boles encourages discussion so we might someday arrive at a consensus.
Spouse, psychiatrist, lawyer, priest – under “privileged communication,” these are the protected relationships within which one may divulge anything. Comparatively, Randall Jimerson’s published SAA Presidential Address “Embracing the Power of Archives” (2006), discusses the archive as a site of power – a temple, a prison, a restaurant. I find the former two to be most relevant in the case of “archival privilege.” If archivists are to be counted among lawyers and priests as those who have the power to withhold (protect?) information, then the archive really does become a nexus for “authority,” “veneration,” and “control” of materials. But how can archives embody the contradiction of the temple and prison – open and closed, welcoming and impenetrable – when confidentiality risks superseding public well-being? Confidentiality of the (alleged) aggressor (e.g., a murderer) is not the same as confidentiality of the victim (e.g., someone who may be outed if their personal papers are circulated).