2004: What is an archive for?

Craig Fees, “What is an archive for?” two pieces by the archivist, Joint Newsletter 10 (2004), p. 48


1. (Taken from an interview to be published, hopefully, in the next issue of the Newsletter, assuming we don’t again run out of time. The interview begins with an innocent remark by the interviewer about the Latin tag “do ut possis dare” which has recently appeared in the Archive and Study Centre masthead, and translates roughly as “Give in order to make it possible (for the one given to) to give.” The response leads through a tour of Craig’s master’s research on Medieval Theatre in Indo-European Context, by way of Dutch Indo-European scholar Jan Gonda, and the impact of Romano-Christian propagandists on the interpretation of non-Christian gift and sacrifice (from the generous and socially deeply rooted “do ut possis dare” to the self-serving and narrowly pragmatic “do ut des“), to arrive at a discussion of fund-raising, and the role of the Narodni Divadlo (National Theatre) in Prague…)

…1974, I was living in the basement in Georgetown of a major Washington (D.C.) mental health lobbyist, Mike Gorman senior, who generously allowed me to stay there, and during the day I worked on the Senate side of the Capitol Building running an elevator, and for Sen. Magnusson in the Russell Senate Office Building answering constituent mail. My supervisor there was a splendid guy named Sam Spina, who gave me tremendous freedom. But on evenings and weekends I did things like run sound for a Shaw play at the American Conservatory Theater, and volunteer work at the Kennedy Arts Center. An amazing place to work: I was given free tickets to see a production designed by the Czech stage and lighting designer, Josef Svoboda (which means “freedom” in Czech, and given the effects he was able to achieve with light and space, and the time – this was several years after the Czech Spring, and many years before the Wall came down – very appropriate), who was already one of my heroes. Radio Prague had been my station on the shortwave radio during high school, and I may have dreamed this, but when we heard the tanks had rolled into Prague I rushed to my radio and heard – or think I heard – that last call for international intervention before the station went off the air. The National Theatre in Prague, and other buildings in that area, still had the bullet holes from the street fighting – because I went to Prague in 1975, after Washington, D.C., with the aim of finding the subject for my master’s degree in theatre: Svoboda, or Czech puppet theatre, perhaps: It’s a rich theatrical culture, of all kinds. So Czechoslovakia already meant something to me before I went to Prague. But one of the things I had learned was something about the power of belief and identity: The Narodni Divadlo is a huge, French-based temple to Czech national identity, right near the river, built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the small donations of Czech people: of those people – farmers, peasants, craftsmen, workers, professional people, business people – who lived within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but felt themselves to be Czech, and felt themselves to be their own nation. Their thousands and thousands of small donations turned into this amazing 19th century stone symbol of national identity. And not just once: The theatre burned down, and those people raised their belief in themselves again, and subscribed again to build their theatre again. Belief and identity: It made the impossible possible not just once, but twice. Not a lesson to be forgotten. And, of course, the people with the sense of identity enough to do that, with the confidence of mutual belonging, and identity and belief in the future, became a nation which could carry out a velvet revolution.


2. from: “The Archive and Study Centre and the Business Plan. Where do we want to be in twenty years’ time?” a paper presented to the Trustees of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, 28 April 2004

When I describe the purpose of the Archive and Study Centre to people outside, and even when describing our approach to fellow archivists, I draw attention to the self, and to the role and nature of memory in being human. People readily understand from their own experience the consequences of Alzheimers and dementia, and can see what happens to refugees and others ripped away from living experience of their past. Those who work therapeutically with children or adults, or who know themselves introspectively, know what happens when memory becomes separated from its roots in ongoing experience, and destructive patterns are repeated, or new experience is inhibited or distorted, or the present becomes overwhelmed in memory, or in its fragmentation or inaccessibility. And people readily understand that the deeper and richer memory is, the more readily accessible and inter-connected it is, and the more fully and appropriately engaged with the processes of the present in containing the past and forecasting and realising the future, the healthier, fuller, and more creative a Self and a Society can become.

What the Archive and Study Centre aims to be, with the Conference Centre, is what a healthy memory is within a creative and healthy human being. We need to continue to create the depth and richness of the holdings; we need to improve and enhance their accessibility, and the connections among them and with experience held elsewhere; and we need to get them integrated, as dynamic partners, with people and organisations for whom the experience they contain will be valuable. That will conduce to healthier individuals and a healthier Society.