Radical archiving: a Wits-Exeter workshop

Archives are about power. Documents, issued by the right authorities and stored in the right places establish truths – about people, events, countries, communities. Being ‘undocumented’ thus implies a dangerous and criminal invisibility – an undocumented person is assumed to be in breach of the law, undeserving of legal protections, even human sympathy: a body out of place.

Since at least the 1980s, historians, art historians, anthropologists and linguists (among others) have been thinking about the archives a bit more sceptically. Many now acknowledge a broad archival turn, which means that we are more aware than before that archives are not just neutral sources of facts. They are actually created by people in power to tell certain stories, and in many cases, those stories become so powerful that most people can only think in those terms, including those who are depicted unfairly and inaccurately in them. While this has made many scholars feel that archives are tools of oppression, others have noted efforts to harness the power of documentation, in order to tell other stories, to claim space.