Collecting Pasts, Archiving Futures

The project proposes to study the proliferation of archives as a specific condition of contemporary life: a condition that has spread from institutional into familial and domestic spaces, from official repositories of records to a variety of non-official sites of storage of images, objects, speech and sound, opening up new scopes for personal, public and community histories. How do we mark this contemporary moment within a longer history of the development of modern forms of state and public archives? How do we make sense of the possibilities it offers for salvaging older collections and envisaging newer ones? The first main concern of the project will be to situate this contemporary boom in archive-making within different national and regional contexts and delve into the particular institutional histories that have been involved. This will allow us to lay out contrasting or parallel time-lines that mark this “archive fever” in each location, and the specific intellectual imperatives and technological innovations that have propelled this drive for collecting, preserving, documenting and cataloguing. Closely following on this will be the second main concern of the project – which will be to track the changing definitions of what constitutes an ‘archive’ and what kinds of antiquarian, professional, disciplinary and creative practices can be seen as participating in the work of ‘archiving’.

The invitation here would be to reflect, on the one hand, about the privileged “topology” and “nomology” that have identified the space of the archive - “this uncommon place, this place of election, where law and singularity intersect in privilege” (Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 1995, p.3). And, on the other hand, to think about the increasing elasticity and permeability of the notion of the archive, as collections move from material assemblages and locations into virtual worlds of portable digital data, and open themselves up to new forms of public access, circulation and sharing. Both the production and use of archives can be seen to pass on from more conventional spheres of professional expertise to alternative spheres of private initiatives and creative interventions, where along with scholars and researchers, artists and curators, architects and urban planners, civic and political activists can all lay claim to the making of ‘archives’. It will be important to consider how far the digital turn in archiving has led to the democratisation of archival holdings that for long lay ensconced within privileged sites and their structures of custody and regulation. The idea of a contemporary digital era of shared access archival resources may well be part of a fiction of an endlessly expandable world of information and communication. Nineteenth century empires, we know, created vast knowledge complexes and networks of museums, libraries, surveys and record rooms that became the mainstay of governance and the institutional inheritance of nation-states. Thomas Richards (The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, 1993, p.6) writes of how this quest for a comprehensive and unified corpus of knowledge was central to the fantasy of empire.  If we were to similarly conceive of the ‘archive’, less as an agglomeration of physical sites and repositories, more as an imagined supra-entity, “a fantasy of knowledge, collected and unified’ in the service of empires and nation-states, we are then pushed to consider how our contemporary regimes of digital and portable archives are generating their own fantasies of a virtual world unified by knowledge, where no resource will remain publicly hidden and inaccessible, and where local collections can seek out new forms of global circulation. .

The project intends to proceed along the following two thematic and chronological sections

I. On Collecting Histories and Practices

This section will look at the prior and parallel worlds of institutional and private collecting, stretching from the 18th to the 20th centuries, from which the entity of the archive emerges as a distinct type of a repository with its own protocols of organisation, preservation and public access. A key question will be to ask what epistemologically and materially distinguishes a ‘collection’ from an ‘archive,’ and what kinds of transformations are entailed when collections get redistributed and reconstituted as ‘archives’. The aim will be to explore a wide spectrum of collections and collectors to arrive at a new understanding of collecting as cultural practice and of collections as discrete assemblages of material – ranging from manuscripts and texts, records and documents, art and craft objects, archaeological and anthropological artefacts, personal memorabilia or popular everyday ephemera. In the context of British Indian history, several pilot studies could be conducted to track processes, such as – (i) the dispersal of royal and courtly collections over this long period and their occasional transformations into palace museums (ii) the passage of objects from these locations into the modern institutions of libraries, museums, scholarly  societies or  university departments (iii) the prodigal rise of the individual collector, European and Indian, and the growth of new kinds of specialised antiquarian, scholarly and disciplinary collections, premised on connoisseurship and expertise – many of which later come into public bodies or invite new processes of cataloguing and archiving (iv) the accumulation of records, reports, images and objects of the Imperial Surveys and the travels of these collections between the metropole and the colony (v) the searching and gathering of pre-colonial historical records from family collections by scholars (Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his Empire of Truth, 2015, provides a vivid account of this process) to lay the grounds for the first Historical Records Commission and the National Archives of India.

II. On Archiving Histories and Practices

This section will take off from the time of the formal inception of state archives out of governmental departments and record rooms, involving new structures of custody, professional expertise and public access. In the Indian subcontinent, this development coincides with the political conjuncture of Independence and the nationalisation of the colonial archives, alongside the colonial inheritance of libraries, museums and other knowledge repositories. It also marks the time of Partition, and the partitioning of the country’s archival, library and museum resources, side by side with the division of territory and populations. The main concern of this section will be to track the transition from the predominant form of the official archive at the national and regional levels to a series of new endeavours at preserving private papers and family collections, at recording speech and memory, at archiving oral and visual histories, or at building house museums and repositories of film and music. This transition will require its periodisation within the framework of contemporary history, and its positioning within the changing intellectual concerns of the historical and social science disciplines that have produced alternative readings of official records and driven the search for new kinds of non-textual sources. A series of emergent cultural fields of study – such as film, performance, media and visual studies – have been heavily dependent on the forming of alternative archives of material that have been collected by scholars themselves. Some of the key themes for exploration here would be – (i) a typology of these new kinds of archival ventures and their different locations within academic institutions, non-governmental organisations or private homes (ii) the growing trend of the archiving of private collections and family holdings (iii) the spurt in the building of institutional archives by organisations ranging from State Bank of India or the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research to corporate firms, clubs, societies, schools and colleges, each of which have involved the mobilization of external professional expertise (iv) the professionalization of the practice of archiving. with the division of conceptual and technical labour of the archivist (v) emergence of artistic practices that have creatively appropriated archival resources, or made innovative use of the format of the archive (vi) the shift from the preservation of material objects to the work of photographic documentation and digitization, where the aura of the original recedes before the vast collation of digital images and their processing into meta-data (vii) the promise of bypassing strictures of custody and copyright and of arriving at a common shared platforms of archival resources – where digital utopias often give way to dystopias of irretrievable loss and disappearance of  context.