about "the archive"

This project is called “Artists in the Archive”. So, what is an archive? (We will leave the question of what is an artist for another time.)

Standard dictionary definitions and thesauri entries tell us that an archive can be A place or collection containing records, documents, or other materials of historical interest or a record office, museum, registry, repository. An archaeological archive is, we are told, All parts of the archaeological record, including the finds and digital records as well as the written, drawn and photographic documentation.

This is interesting territory. An archive can be a place or a collection containing materials of historical interest. An archaeological archive includes the finds. Let’s consider a field.

A field is after all a place. There may be deposits below the surface of the field that contain objects placed or discarded many centuries ago. Strictly speaking, these buried objects are not finds, because they havent been found. So they cant be part of an archaeological archive. But the field is a place. And it contains a collection of materials which are of historical interest. These objects, in those deposits, in that place … does this constitute an archive?

Clearly the concept of archive involves much more than the simple idea of something being somewhere. It is more than having a cabinet stuffed full of blue jugs or a field or garden full of dead Romans.

For an object to become part of an archaeological archive, as defined above, it has to become a find – it has to be found. The object is taken from its context and placed in a series of other contexts. The object moves from soil to the finds tray; from the finds tray to the storage box; from the storage box to a place where it is conserved; from conservation it will be taken somewhere and analysed; it may go into long-term storage; possibly it is put on display and viewed; it might be lent for display elsewhere; researchers may come and study it; an artist might … be creative with it.  

The object is taken further and further away from its original context in an attempt to create an understanding or series of understandings of the object, its use, its contexts. On this journey the object gains value. It is cared for and carefully looked after. It is numbered, described, it acquires documentation. Now the documentation needs to be looked after as well.  

An array of individuals is drawn in: the excavator, the finds person, the site director, the conservator, the specialist, the museum curator, the collections manager, the cleaner who polishes the glass display cabinet, the van driver, the security guard, the museum visitor, the researcher … .

On reflection, the archive isnt a place, or a collection, it isnt a museum or a depository. To me the archive represents a process of engagement.

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