Context Junky

Archives/GLAM, PhD life, history, art, etc.

Considering “The Power of the Archive” – A Response

Last week, Annelie de Villiers posted a piece on her blog – Considering “The Power of the Archive”. This response continues the conversation started there.

When considering the power of the archive, the term ‘power’ can have numerous meanings: political power; the power to change or affect a situation; emotive or affective power; or even potential, unrealised power. On the latter, there may be a document (or documents) in an archive with the potential to bring down a government. If this hasn’t happened yet, does that record have power?

Another question that arises: if it is the materiality of archives that gives them inherent power, does this mean immaterial records (for example, those based in oral traditions) or intangible heritage, in lacking materiality, lack power? (Sound can be considered a material object too, but that is a topic for another day.)

One aspect of such discussions is that power – whether assigned or inherent – is often treated as an actual or potential property of a discrete thing. But, looking at Annelie’s post, particular phrases stand out:

  • Windschuttle engaged with archival documentation
  • records were accessed and interpreted
  • the Ngarrindjeri hold an extensive archival collection

All are relational. They describe relationships between people (or groups of people) and records.

Annelie approaches this idea with the following: “ultimately someone needs to be there to engage with the records and therefore assign power.”

Taking this a step further, to understand power we need to understand the ways in which things interrelate. This doesn’t have to be engagement with the records (in the sense of access and use). An organisation which prevents access to its records (or destroys them) by doing so produces and reproduces structures of power. Power here is not something inherent to things, or assigned to things by agents, but the product of complex systems involving things, their relationships, and their contexts.

The materiality of the records ‘care’ leavers take into advocacy meetings may contribute to the power dynamics of that situation at that time, in that particular context. If the same records were once held by a past provider, unlisted and poorly managed, they had a very different role within very different power structures.

When an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community holds and manages an extensive archival collection, power here is a product of the custodial relationship between the community and that collection. Perhaps other forms of power emerge from the relationships that develop within and beyond the community as a result. If that collection was previously held by a museum founded during Australia’s colonial era it was previously part of a different system of relationships, with a different sort of power.

Giving an even more explicit nod to Foucault, power is diffuse and distributed across complex systems where relationships can evolve and shift through time, sometimes quite dramatically. Archives can potentially play very significant roles within these systems, as can creators, custodians, users, and the subjects of records, and the relationships between all these (and other) elements.

In short, power in all its complex forms emerges from and is maintained by relationality.

Do you agree? You can comment below, keep the conversation going on Twitter (@mikejonesmelb), or write your own blog post in response. Many thanks to Annelie @annelie_de (and her supervisor Tom Denison @30secondarchive) for getting the ball rolling.


  1. Thank you both Mike and Annelie for kicking off what I think is a really important conversation around Archives and power. There’s a general assumption around the role archives-as-repositories play in sustaining or creating ‘power’ or ‘identity’, but just how they do this, or whether its even an actual thing is difficult to articulate or define.

    I like the concept of relationality Mike’s highlighted here, especially since it allows for the incorporation of temporality and the prospect of evolution and change over time .

    In the first question posed above – (there may be a document (or documents) in an archive with the potential to bring down a government. If this hasn’t happened yet, does that record have power?) – the latency of the archive-as-content is assumed. In other words, there’s always the possibility that somewhere in the repository is the single, golden item that will reveal itself as ‘the one’ – whatever that may be – and then the injection of agency, the transition from inherent to active power occurs, as Mike notes.

    More broadly though, I think there’s an ‘imagined’ power in archival repositories. Not only on the basis that they are often mythologized as the store of potentially ‘golden’ items, but also in the way that they allow communities to potentially imagine themselves as communities. This is Benedict Anderson’s thesis – that to be part of a group there needs to be a range of shared or widely accepted attributes and/or elements that the group imagines themselves all sharing – and the archival repository, although it doesn’t feature in his work, I think is a key to fulfilling this role.

    And in this role, it’s not about the one item, series or accession, but the very existence of the thing called an archive that is key. It has its mysterious ways, supported by a range of cool stereotypes (cardigan, ‘dust’, things ‘lost only to be ‘discovered’, ‘reading rooms etc…) which help to establish the archive as more than a thing, and all those attributes help to give it the air of mystery. If you need something, it’s likely to be ‘in the archive’. Even if you don’t, there’s safety in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, has carefully archived it. And it’s that mythologising I think that creates a peculiar type of archival power, at once active and activated, latent and potential.

    Finally – phew! – the imagined archive is clearly and obviously stuck firmly in the relational model Mike describes: the sources of ideation and conception and that are used to imagine the archive are filtered and shaped by contemporary and historical patterns and relationships. Over time, archives may become more or less powerful, more or less positive, or represent more or less of a threat to the status quo. It’s no wonder that during civil conflicts, repositories are targeted.

    So, thanks again for kicking off this conversation!

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