From the Dead Sea Scrolls to “Monkey Jesus,” popular culture and historiography have built up a kind of mythos around historic materials and their preservation. The sacredness of knowledge and culture – its physical manifestations – is subject to cautious (sometimes circumspect) handling and accessibility policies. For good reason, we bar food and drink from archival spaces. To varying degrees, we close off public access to archival collections because each time these materials are passed to an “outsider,” we risk damage to or theft of our cultural heritage. The potential for loss is enough to frighten some archivists into hiding away collections behind the walls of their institutions – conjuring an inner sanctum of memory to which only the privileged are privy. But what constitutes an “outsider?”
Ecce Homo a.k.a. "Monkey Jesus." "Spanish fresco restoration botched by amateur." BBC News. Accessed October 28, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-19349921.
Most obviously, someone who is ill-equipped to handle the physical fragility – the tenuousness – of these objects. Implicitly, then, an “insider” is the archivist – someone with specialized knowledge who is capable of managing and organizing the vastness of our material legacies.
Be it botched frescos, the paving of the Great Wall, or “fixed” tombs-turned-picnic tables, we often have good reason to anxiously anticipate restoration and conservation efforts. Outdoors or indoors, antique or ancient, the salvageability of these things is treated warily and with perverse fascination. We mourn the deevolution of the Ecce Homo, all the while creating memes and traveling great distances just to take selfies with it. Why?
We are reminded of the role that archives play in safeguarding certain materials. Indeed, archives represent a societal mechanism – a checks-and-balances system – for the (safe, sane, and professional) maintenance of our cultural heritage. Archives hold the power, making historic objects and documents sacrosanct – they can both liberate and blockade the physical, the intellectual, and the ideological elements of our materials and the histories they hold.