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       Christopher Columbus is dead. The consequences of his legacy of conquest and violence however, as well as the legacy of all colonizers, play out in contemporary society in ways far greater and subtler than October mattress sales.[1] “The archive” as both a physical space and a broad concept encompasses our institutional method of housing memory through material things. Documents and objects are understood as physical embodiments of memories and ideas, as touchstones that allow for the past to be remembered and interpreted in the present and for the future.[2] We create memory through the things we save and how we organize and describe them. And like physical spaces and people, our “knowledge” and our cultural memory has been colonized. Both the objects within archives as well as the organizational methods used to manage them speak to a desire to frame the cultural memory around a white, Eurocentric narrative. Consider the basic principle on which archives are formed: “all knowledge in the world can be represented in document form” and “to some degree, already is”. [3] This perception of the materiality of knowledge eliminates a great many narratives. On the list of methods to be used to frame and create social change: the decolonization of the archive is key.

        The existence of “The Baltimore Collection” as a collection is an act of decolonization, of “recovery as resistance.” What we know about the collection is that prior to their donation to the University of Delaware, the photographs had been abandoned. Both the photographs and the people pictured existed as “unknowns,” “hidden” and disconnected from the universe of materials depicting and documenting Black folks.  When accessioned and added to the University Museum collections, their tiered accession numbers began with “9999.0910”, designating them as elements to be included in the “Study” collection, as opposed to the “Permanent” collection. As quoted in John E. Simmons’ Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies, “All accessioned objects are acquired, but not all acquisitions are meant to be accessioned.”[4] University Museums acquired and accepted the photographs, and in formally accessioning them, allowed the group of photographs to be reimagined as a “collection” and afforded them with caretakers. The photographs of “The Baltimore Collection” received the same level of care as the other objects housed by University Museums, however as objects within the “Study” collection, their treatment was primarily focused on their ability to serve as “educational disposables”— the collection was understood as materials to be cleaned and conserved with the understanding that permanent damage may occur. Their potential however, extended far beyond their existence as educational materials.  

        The effort to decolonize, as undertaken by the work of our class, goes beyond salvage. Through the efforts of Dr. Julie McGee, the photographs were again designated as educational tools for a class. However, our specific actions in researching each image in an effort to discover and to create discoverability expand on the care provided to the collection. A semester was spent with these photographs in research and metadata creation. In this way, we ensure that the life of the photographs as a collection extend past their “study collection” designation by housing them on a curated digital platform. While the vast majority of sitters pictured are recognized as unidentified, the information about each image which is now accessible on Artstor provides a measure of gravitas to the objects and expands “the archive” by entering dozens more images of Black folks into the public and scholarly arena. Beyond that, the WordPress site that this post and others appear on allow information about and for these images to bloom beyond the “tyranny” of the Artstor platform–a metadata schema that privileges certainty over uncertainty, fixed fields over the as yet undescribed. In considering “the archive” broadly as the scope of materials that are used to create knowledge, we engage in decolonization through the act of knowledge production regarding these images.

        The colonized nature of the archive is evidenced both by the records within and the methods and language used to organize and describe them. What is housed in archival spaces? Records of past lives, places, and concept. But whose lives, what places, and what concepts? Largely, the material evidence of the lives of “people and places that are understood as outside of or marginal to the archival project of nation building,”[5] were unrecorded, or if documented, actively excluded from the archive. This is hugely problematic due to the conceptualization of “the archive” an institution understood to house records that are “worthy” of being saved. Archives contribute to a society’s understanding of itself within its own time as well as the ability of the society to be understood in the future. Fundamentally, archives house and are leveraged in the creation of knowledge—when the histories and experiences of groups of people are excluded, it suggests that information by and about those people is not worth knowing, then, now, or in the future. In the reading of the archive, marginalized peoples must be found in the gaps and within the margins, and in many cases this feeble hope of “rediscovery” is never realized. Decolonization of archival spaces occurs both in reorganization and reexamination, but also in the recognition of the gaps in archival records and perhaps the impossibility of recovery.[6]

        The archive can be a radical space; archival practice must be bold in the face of its intended purpose. Recovery, where possible, provides opportunities to add “hidden” materials (and the narratives that they represent) to the universe of materials housed within archival spaces. However, in recognizing and embracing the “gaps” in the archive, it is possible to begin to consider how to catalog the unknown. Decolonization occurs when “the archive” is reimagined and tangibly expanded to include marginalized voices, thereby expanding and exploding the cultural imaginary.


[1]. During the month of October, many products (including mattresses) ares sold at a discount to “celebrate” Columbus Day

[2]. “The Question of Recovery,” Laura Helton, Justin Leroy, Max A. Mishler, Samantha Seeley, and Shauna Sweeney, in Social Text volume 33 issues number 4, doi:10.1215/01642472-3315766, Page 4

[3]. Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis, “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” Page 678

[4]. Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies by John E. Simmons, Page 37

[5]. Jennifer L. Morgan, “Archives and Histories of Racial Capitalism,”Social Text volume 33 issue number 4, doi:10.1215/01642472-3315862, Page 15.

[6]. “The Question of Recovery” by Laura Helton, Justin Leroy, Max A. Mishler, Samantha Seeley, and Shauna Sweeney, Page 1

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