Anagram have been asked to be part of a development process with West Midland Archives. At risk o funding cuts the archives want to find a bold way to communicate the meaning of their existence. The hidden gems in their vaults. The work that their archivists do. And in their possession the piecemeal beginning and endings of stories. Some that are known, some that are being made, and some that don’t seem like stories yet but other generations might within their detail discover a profundity that has not yet emerged.
The County Records office holds many collections of things.
In all you find the following; records of legal documents, their population’s official encounters with the state – birth, marriage, death etc. The nuts and bolts of land occupancy and possession, maps drawn and redrawn over time.
Beyond these there are the documents, photos and illustrations that arrive by wayward means.- loans, donations or otherwise. We came across a wax seal that represented the houses of Commons amidst a heated debate led by Oliver Cromwell, an 11th Century degree signed by King Stephen, war time letters announcing death, an extraordinary collection of lantern photos taken around the world by a dedicated hobbyist the turn of the 18th century, a book Victorian criminal photos listing their crimes, and a 19th century case book a lunatic asylum in Warwick.
All gems in their own way but what to make of them?
Here are some thoughts about, in and of itself, it might mean to collect these object.
Births. Marriages. Deaths.
Here in storage there is the list of the beginnings, branching and endings of all humans who came through this tract of land. The list is not yet infinite but it might as well be. What is the meaning in fact of the existence of this data? How can it be experienced? Last month at the Guggenheim On Kawara’s retrospective was exhibited. As part of the Today series he made a painting with the date on for each day he was alive. The experience of walking through the gallery, along its spiraled corridors is the act of marking out time with him.
Is the archive a store of time as much as it is of things?
Who do you think you will be?
In Into Eternity a documentary by Michael Madsen, there is a discussion by the scientists tasked with designing a subterranean storage unit for the Scandinavian nuclear waste. It’s a mammoth feat of engineering but the film also focuses on the philosophical questions the design requires. A particularly resonate part is when they discuss signage. What should mark the spot? ‘Do not enter’? if so in what language. In pictures? The radioactive waste will endure long after humans are on earth. Will a sign attract attention would it be best to leave it blank? It a question about how we talk to generations after us. Not knowing their situation, their concerns, their interests. Or in this case whether they are even still human.
Justin, an archeologist working at the Worcester archives shows us the store of clay pot fragments that were found in the site where they build the new ASDA. Its partly their job to recover items of historic importance before new development seal it up or destroy it. Some are marked pottery ‘RIM’ mostly marked pottery ‘BODY’. Justin explains the debate about whether Body shards should be stored. If you don’t have the rim then you can decipher very little about the original piece. He’s on the side of destroy. Others, mainly those who work at the higher echelons and not tasked with the physical labor of boxing, labeling and storing are on the side of keeping it all. Maybe he posits, future generations will find a way to extract meaning from the body shards that stump us now and a new piece of the puzzle will emerge.
You shall know us by our deeds.
At the country office are lots of maps. Maps that are as big as the county office. Maps that you have to roll out first to see what they are and then cross reference with other documents stored elsewhere. Some of the maps and the supporting documents denote the divisions of the lands. Who owns what and documentation of boundary disputes. However also there in reams upon reams is the documentation the enclosure acts which began in the 1600s and continued for 400 years -making almost 7 million acres of land in Britain previously held by the commons private land.
We unraveled one of these in Warwick.
Its an empowering sensation to hold this in your hand. To know that the situation that we have taken to be as natural as the land itself – that of ownership, continuous and complete of the nations terrain, is merely the result of a human and therefore arbritary decision taken at some point in time, to appease the present moment in some way. Arbitrary and therefore possibly reversible.
What we do with the mad and the bad?
Two of the most fascinating items in the Warwick collection was a Victorian book of Known Thieves which listed criminals and their crimes and the case book from a local 19th Century lunatic asylum
The story of Parchment
Is there a worth to the physical thing? Donata tells us the story about how she made parchment as part of her conservation studies in italy. It takes along time for her to tell it. Each stage is more complicate, viscous visceral grotesque than the last and decades skin, the lime cultures, and the waiting in the meantime.
A nation of horders.
At the heart of this is a debate of what to keep and what to throw away. The national project is no less complicated than the daily chore of the individual to continually keep, assess, categorise and chuck out.
In her diary written during the devastations of the second World War Anais Nin writes:
The physical as a symbol of the spiritual world. The people who keep old rags, old useless objects, who hoard, accumulate: are they also keepers and hoarders of old ideas, useless information, lovers of the past only, even in its form of detritus?
I have the opposite obsession. In order to change skins, evolve into new cycles, I feel one has to learn to discard. If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects. They reflect one’s mind and psyche of yesterday. I throw away what has no dynamic, living use. I keep nothing to remind me of the passage of time, deterioration, loss, shriveling.
The idea to shed the past with each modern interpretation is scary. We inherently trust that the vicissitudes of each time are no more eternal than the last ideas. And those ideas are more than just the whims of the period, rather the politics ideology implicit within it.
The politics of the archive was expressed in Foucault’s ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ – For him the archive is ‘the general system of the formation and transformation of statements’ The archive is not just the sum of its parts but the identity of its owner:
‘the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past, or as evidence of a continuing identity’ – The archive is a functional concept, expressive of the pre accepted thoughts in a culture; ‘the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events’, even if the archive is not amorphous but discriminating; ‘far from being only that which ensures that we exist in the midst of preserved discourses, it is that which differentiates discourses in their multiple existence and specifies them in their own duration’