Archives and museums: social change and social justice


by Craig Fees


Archives, Recordkeeping and Social Justice

David A Wallace, Wendy M Duff, Renée Saucier and Andrew Flinn (eds)

Abingdon: Routledge, 2020, 282pp; £36.99, paperback; £120, hardback; £33.29, eBook.


Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum

Adele Chynoweth, Bernadette Lynch, Klaus Petersen and Sarah Smed (eds)

Abingdon: Routledge, 2020, 214pp; £34.99, paperback; £120, hardback; £31.49, eBook.


Published in Oral History50:1 (2022), pp. 127-135. 



In 1989 I was asked by a small charity called the Planned Environment Therapy Trust to establish what became the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre. For thirty years I was immensely fortunate to be an archivist and oral historian in a field whose organisations and people were committed to realising social justice and social change in contexts which are not always associated with them: prisons, psychiatric hospitals, approved schools, children’s homes, homelessness hostels, addiction treatment centres, and so on. I had my hands in the archives, my eyes in the publications and my ears in the lives of people who changed lives and institutions, and even prevailing assumptions and legislation; and, significantly, in the lives of people whose lives had been changed.


In 2013 historian Nick Barratt said of it, ‘It may be that you have never heard of this archive’, which is almost certainly true, ‘but the work that it undertakes and collections it holds are inspirational’,1 and in 2018 Oral History Society chair John Gabriel wrote that its ‘oral history collection is one of national and international importance’:


of incredible value to those researching the planned environment and therapeutic living movements - for research in diverse subject areas as history, social sciences and therapeutic studies to name but a few. The Archive’s importance stretches far beyond the traditional research communities, as the oral histories are priceless resources for people with their own experiences of living and working in planned environments and therapeutic communities. The manner in which PETT Archive has collected these oral histories through collaboration with its many constituent groups is, in itself, innovative.2


Innovation was helped by the fact that we were building from scratch, with the work shaped from the start by people who knew the area from all its different sides, and had our own rural campus with residential accommodation, allowing us to explore possibilities not readily available to most archives and museums. In 2010-2011 we ran an eighteen-month Heritage Lottery Funded project with residential components called ‘Therapeutic Living with Other People’s Children: an oral history of residential therapeutic child care c. 1930- c. 1980’, which allowed us to bring together everything we’d learned in the previous twenty years of archiving and oral historying with distressing and traumatic experience. It gave us the time to focus on and enjoy the company of people and collections where difficult childhood experience and the residential, therapeutically intended response to it was central. Working with former children and staff of therapeutic environments, we put together a project design which allowed us to set out our stall of understandings, and to demonstrate what a reasonably funded, therapeutically grounded and practice-informed archive could do.3


The project was successful as a proof of concept, both in its own terms and in terms of two national awards,4 but seven years later the charity lost its financial battle. The Archive and the rural campus were transferred to another charity, the Mulberry Bush Organisation. The collections were renamed the Planned Environment Therapy Archive to honour their origins, and the Planned Environment Therapy Trust was wound up.


I came out of the Archive and Study Centre just before Christmas 2018, dually stunned by the intensity of the preceding years and by the volume of very interesting work and literature which had grown up around archives, access and social justice while I’d been away. I asked to review these two books to help orientate myself in this flourishing world of heritage, social justice and social change. I was drawn to these in particular by my existing familiarity with the work of archivist Anna Sexton in the Memory - Identity - Rights in Records - Access (MIRRA) project at University College London, and of Jessica and Matthew Turtle, founders of the Museum of Homelessness, who have chapters in Archives, Recordkeeping and Social Justice (henceforth Archives and Recordkeeping) and Museums and Social Change (henceforth Museums) respectively (Anna Sexton with four colleagues). In their work they are beacons of audacity (who I think would have a lot to say to one another), and I really wanted to see what they were saying in their chapters, and what company their chapters were keeping. Interestingly, the work that Anna Sexton was central to as an archivist sits uniquely within Archives and Recordkeeping as an act in itself of social justice-making, and almost as a challenge to the other chapters, but also as part of the book’s aim to convey the range and capacity of archives and archival science to contribute to the discourse on social justice. The chapter by Jessica and Matthew Turtle in Museums on their work in the Museum of Homelessness, begun in 2014, is unique and stands out too, because it is also creative and ground-breaking. While its direct critique of power could easily situate it among the chapters in Archives and Recordkeeping, it is at home in Museums; there is a fierceness, care and indomitableness which is shared and fits with what the book is about and tries to convey about the doing of social change. I was drawn away from what I was expecting through my familiarity with Anna Sexton’s work; I was drawn further into it by Jessica and Matthew Turtle’s. But each fits the book it is in. The books are very different, but they each have a coherent purpose and are thoughtfully assembled.


Both books are published by Routledge and have similar structures: a core of case studies in the form of chapters, framed by introductions to the subject, the themes, the case studies and the contributors, with an accompanying apparatus: index, dedication and acknowledgements. Archives and Recordkeeping has a conclusion, which is helpful, and whose absence from Museums I felt physically. The book ends with a powerful chapter by Adele Chynoweth on developing her co-curated temporary exhibition for the National Museum of Australia on Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, in which she works her way through the museum’s complex and contradictory treatment of institutional care survivors during the process of preparing and launching the exhibition. The chapter culminates in the direct, challenging and personal call for justice by two survivors during the launch celebrations for the exhibition, to which she responded in a life-changing way, beginning in 2011 and culminating in her book of oral history with women who had been incarcerated as children in an adult mental health facility, Goodna Girls, in 2020. In this context, perhaps the silence of an absent afterword was intentional.5


The case studies around which the books are wrapped (nine inArchives and Recordkeeping and twelve in Museums) are guides to the current state of play in their respective areas of concern, with the usual caveat of the lag between writing and publication.5 Both are very clear in what they set out to do, and in the opening sentences of their remits you can see clearly how and where they diverge in their approaches to what they otherwise have in common - and they do have a lot in common. A number of the chapters could (and should) speak directly across the volumes to one another. For example, in Archives and Recordkeeping the chapter by Joanne Evans, Frank Golding, Cate O’Neill and Rachel Tropea (‘“All I want to know is who I am”: archival justice for Australian care leavers’) speaks to multiple chapters in Museums (Adele Chynoweth’s ‘A call to justice at the National Museum of Australia’; Jacob Knage Rasmussen’s ‘The act of emancipating oneself: the museum and the release of adult care leavers’ case records’; Stine Granbaek Jensen’s ‘Doors, stairways and pitfalls: care leavers’ memory work at the Danish Welfare Museum’). As both chapters chart the grassroots re-invention of the archive and the museum around activism and a community’s definition of what is necessary to their own history and identity, there is a conversation to be had between Rebecka Taves Sheffield’s ‘Social justice struggles for rights, equality, and identity: the role of lesbian and gay archives’ in Archives and Recordkeeping and Adele Patrick’s ‘March of Women: equality and usefulness in action at Glasgow Women’s Library’ in Museums.


But to see where the orientations and purposes of the two books diverge, look at the opening lines of their remits and compare the phrases ‘depicts struggles’ in Archives and Recordkeeping with ‘explores the ways’ in Museums:


Archives, Recordkeeping and Social Justice expands the burgeoning literature on archival social justice and impact. Illuminating how diverse factors shape the relationship between archives, recordkeeping systems, and recordkeepers, this book depicts struggles for different social justice objectives.




Museums and Social Change explores the ways museums can work in collaboration with marginalised groups to work for social change and, in so doing, rethink the museum.


The nucleus of concern for Museums is ‘marginalised groups’ with the focus on ‘collaborating with marginalised groups for social change’. The more abstract and theory-oriented nucleus of concern in Archives and Recordkeeping is ‘the relationship [my emphasis] between archives, recordkeeping systems, and recordkeepers’ with the focus on how ‘diverse factors shape the relationship’.7 In this context, the purpose of Archives and Recordkeeping is to expand ‘the burgeoning literature on archival social justice and impact’, where ‘impact’ - and what constitutes impact, and how impact can be uncovered, defined, demonstrated and assessed - is an essential and original part of the contribution the book makes to the literature. Thinking as an oral historian, how do you assess and demonstrate impact in heritage work in a way that matters? Taken altogether, this illuminates a primary audience of academic information professionals and social and cultural theoreticians, perhaps even policy makers, to whom Archives and Recordkeeping appears to me to be addressed. But they are not the only audience. The nine case studies, like the audio clips played during an oral history presentation, take the arguments and theory of the various introductions and conclusion (which I found difficult, as someone who knows archives largely through my hands), and makes their themes accessible: illuminated, concrete, illustrated and demonstrably important.


Museums opens with a dedication to the late Richardt Aamand, a man whose experience of early institutional care and later homelessness played an important role in developing and shaping the work of the Danish Welfare Museum:


The book significantly takes inspiration from this one small museum, ‘the last poorhouse in Denmark’ [... ] This remarkable institution calls itself a ‘sociopolitical museum’, that rallies its energy for change by simply refusing to treat people as though they’d arrived at the door of the museum with a lack, a failing, a disability. They thus refuse to reinstate the museum’s traditional hierarchical positioning, as helper or carer in relation to the marginalised.8


The book is directed to the practical task of doing social change, rethinking the museum as such as useful versus helpful, written from the vantage point of people doing the work and learning from it. I found it immediately more accessible from my own experience, and its primary audience - as might be expected through the more public nature of the museum as an institution and the practical orientation of the book - overspills museum professionals to pretty much embrace all of us. In terms of oral historians and statistics, the phrase ‘oral history’ appears in Archives and Recordkeeping twelve times, and nineteen times in Museums, where the references are generally more substantive and the Oral History Society is mentioned. As always with statistics and language, however, this doesn’t tell the whole story. In Archives and Recordkeeping for example, Susan Pell documents the digital archive ‘Heygate Was Home’, which ‘collects oral testimony of ex-residents forced to leave the Heygate, helping to preserve and insert their voice into the public record of the redevelopment process’,9 and David Wallace, one of the book’s editors, was a consultant on ‘Stories for Hope, an intergenerational storytelling project in Rwanda’. Another editor is Andrew Flinn, reader in archival studies and oral history at University College London, and the first case study, on ‘Archives, records, and land restitution in South Africa’ is by Anthea Josias, whose practice as a researcher and an archive/heritage professional ‘has focussed on documenting the memories and records of South Africa’s liberation struggle’.10 The chapter following Josias’s, by Raymond O Frogner, “‘Hang onto these words”: Indigenous title and the social meanings of archival custody’, hinges on oral history in a really important and satisfying way. From the point of view of the likely readers of this journal, oral history is woven all through the two books, and in both books you are in interesting and engaged company.


But the two are very different mapping exercises. Archives and Recordkeeping takes us up into the heights of academic theory without losing contact with the ground, while Museums is firmly anchored to the doing of social change, without losing touch with the heights. In terms of a review this catches me in a paradox, because Museums speaks most directly to my personal experience, while Archives and Recordkeeping engages my imagination and frustration as a practical archivist. In the almost accidental inception of the Danish Welfare Museum as a way to make use of the last surviving complete Danish workhouse, as described by Sarah Smed in ‘Behind barbed wire: co-producing the Danish Welfare Museum’, I can see something of the origins of the Archive and Study Centre (established within a former residential therapeutic community for children). It worked outside many of the conventions of mainstream museums, but with a physical base, filled and shaped by the approach from and outreach to people with experience of homelessness and/or care, inventing practice in conjunction with the people themselves. In the Museum of Homelessness I see mirrors of my experience and background in community work, and against this ground I wish I could give them a firm and secure base to work from. What they could accomplish in thirty years would be well beyond anything I could begin to imagine, and they’re using oral history. Because they speak from direct engagement in doing and demonstrating practical social change I have personal resonances with the majority of the papers in Museums.


Apart from the immediacy of Sexton, Baker-Brown, Bullimore, Sen and Voyce’s chapter on ‘Co-constructing an archive of mental health recovery’, which would sit comfortably within Museums, and even challenge it to do better (because it does social change in itself, as a co-created paper written collectively by people with lived experience and the professional archivist), my relationship to the papers in Archives and Recordkeeping is largely that of a reflecting observer. I am tugged away from the thirty years I spent at work in the Archive demonstrating proof of concept, and I am invited back to the academic researcher I was before the Archive, with words like ‘foment’ and ‘fight’ and ‘struggle’ and language which takes on the personification of action, in case studies which largely talk about, rather than talk from within, their subjects. I am invited through the case studies to engage with records as problematic, as objects whose creation shapes the narrative of how things are, and which remain fixed in time as objects locked into the perceptions and structures of the scribes and masters who created them. In the attempt to fix the future along certain lines, they certainly shackled it, but this was ultimately futile because records’ meanings change as the times around them change. I am invited to see how records, recordmaking and recordkeeping repress, oppress and liberate, and how archives, as the endpoints of records, can be complicit, like Facebook, in turning the management of information against social justice and positive social change. But I am also invited to see how - understood, imagined and acted out differently - they can become agents and handmaidens of positive change. And I am invited to see all this in terms of power. I am thrown back into the world from which I emerged, before I was an oral historian, if there ever was such a time, and before I became an archivist.


And that’s the conundrum. The Archive and Study Centre was my response to the world I grew up in, which was personally loving and secure, but bounded by assassinations and violence of various kinds: the background radiation of the McCarthy era throughout my early childhood; the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas when I was in the sixth grade in Texas; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr when I was a sophomore in high school; the Vietnam War era and so many things attached to it. My senior year in high school was both the first Earth Day and the day of the killing of students not much older than myself by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio, which I associate with the police killings of Black Panthers in their apartment in Chicago, and the killing of black protesters at Orangeburg State University in South Carolina. That was part of my assemblage.11 When my senior high school class began sharing thoughts and memories in the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of our graduation in 2020, aborted by the pandemic, we remembered together how we instigated the school’s Earth Day and took the school out on strike in the National Moratorium in protest at the invasion of Cambodia, which was the day the Kent State killings happened. My memory went back to People’s Park in Berkeley, when I was growing up nearby, and the mural depicting the protestors shot when police broke it up. Violence of all kinds, and what could be done about it in nonviolent and productive ways, was at the heart of the collections of the archive I had stumbled my way into. Doing oral history brought me into the lives of those who had been active in that work and were affected by it, as living illustrations of what was realistic and possible - how and why. Then, emerging from the archive after thirty years, I found myself in a world even more on fire: whole swathes of California that I knew going up in flames; drought in Colorado, where I used to walk in trout streams; the Capitol building in Washington DC where I’d worked, assaulted.


As an archivist, researcher and someone who saw first hand former children in care encountering their files and their histories, I know how powerful and life- enriching the encounter with records can be. The world is literally changed in the encounter. Horizons are pushed back, opening up space which allows things - the understanding of one’s self - to fall into place. Dams break and agency flows. I’ve been there when it happens. And yet archives are among the most distant of the institutions of society devoted to putting the past to the service of the future, behind museums and libraries, and, of course, oral history.


The heritage institutions are spread out along a continuum of direct engagement with people, with archives most distant, and (because it isn’t an institution, but a direct involvement) oral history as closest. How directly engaged an institution is will impact directly on how, when and how quickly it can recognise and respond to the changing needs and aspirations that people have for self-encounter and discovery. These are the building blocks of identity, agency and belonging, which are the basis of social justice and social change. It is no accident that oral history has a strong record in being early to the places where society is changing. Nor is it surprising that museums have been ahead of archives in discovering their role as agents of social inclusion and change (as Rebecka Taves Sheffield points out, interestingly enough, in her chapter in Archives and Recordkeeping) .12 Nor is it an accident that both museums and archives have turned to the use of oral history in becoming loci of social engagement and social change.


As institutions of social justice and social change, archives have a steep hill to climb in the public imagination because they are historically places of retention, preservation and delivery, with people held at arms’ length from the archives for the security and preservation of the materials and the information they carry. This protection is an essential part of the archive’s duty to the future: to hold information intact and reliable for the time future generations are ready to seek and deal with it.13 The capacity of archives to be radical depends paradoxically on their capacity to be conservative, to be objective in the sense of holding material securely, completely and safely, and keeping its integrity, contents and provenance intact. It also depends on the basis of this evidential authority, to be ready and available for discovery and interpretation through new eyes and in new situations as they arise, as we see powerfully in several case studies in Archives and Recordkeeping. This is notably apparent in Andrew Flinn and Wendy Duff’s ‘Justice for the 96! The impact of archives in the fight for justice for the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster’. Their report and the records re-examined by the Hillsborough Independent Panel overturned almost a quarter of a century of police, media and government narrative about the culpability in their own deaths of the ninety-six Liverpool fans crushed at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium in 1989. The truth was available and could finally be asserted because the records were kept, they were intact and they were reliable.


Museums also have the archive’s function of retention and preservation, holding materials securely, with cataloguing systems to secure the evidence of their provenance and handling, and to make it possible to find and make them available when needed. Museums have storerooms not accessible to the general public, as archives do. But museums are built around objects that are on display and meant to be experienced. Where archives have traditionally been encountered in holding back and giving material only when requested, museums are built around the gift of direct and immediate experience. In this context it is no wonder that ‘love’ predominates in Museums, and ‘power’ predominates in Archives and Recordkeeping. The word love appears twenty-two times in Museums: fourteen times in the introduction, five distributed among the case studies, sometimes in titles of publications, and three times in the index: ‘attention as love’ on page 23, ‘love as practice of freedom’ on pages 24-25, for example.


In contrast, in Archives and Recordkeeping the word love appears only six times, generally in the titles of things. Conversely, the word power appears in Archives and Recordkeeping 113 times, and in Museums sixty- wo times. There are reasons for this, of course, which go below the surface of the statistics. But there is a worldview around archives to which, their being relatively removed, Michel Foucault was able to make a significant contribution. Both archives and museums are involved in power and service or, translated into other terms, power and giving or power and care (where the ultimate grounding of genuine service and genuine care is love). But archives are more distant from direct experience, which makes them more readily subject to projections such as ‘dusty archives’, the archival equivalent of oral history’s ‘old men drooling’,14 and to uncontested appropriation.


Archives have changed considerably and become far more accessible to the public since the 1960s, when Foucault, who was an academic and knew what an archive was, looked into the nature of human being as an historical and corporate discourse, and looked past the actual archive in order to grasp more profoundly ‘the general system of formation and transformation of statements’.15 Like a rather impatient version of Martin Heidegger, whose use of ‘care’ should never be taken at face value, Foucault looked past archives as everyday workplaces of information and knowledge, with which he wasn’t concerned, to appropriate a term in the public domain (‘archive’), unmoor it from its everyday meaning (chosen ‘in part because of its etymological similarity with ‘‘archaeology’”)16 and turned it into a categorial abstraction (‘The Archive’); filled it with a new set of significations - making it quite clear he did not mean archives as institutions, nor their contents (albeit at a rollicking gallop which, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, leaps the transition in meaning and thereby obscures it, before heading off);17 and then abandoned it, leaving in his wake the free-floating use of the term ‘‘the archive” for anything but a working archive: an ironic expression of the power of the intellect to colonise the real and immediate, the assertion of the hegemony of the intellectual over the actual everyday work and lived working place of archivists, conservators, cleaners, researchers, and real people generally. Foucault appropriated ‘the archive’ as an entrepreneurial intellectual capitalist, extracted what value he wished from it and then sailed on to new shores,18 leaving a free-floating ‘archive’ behind and available for further abstract appropriation and exploitation, notably by Derrida.19


This released an heroic imagination and has been useful for many people in many ways. But it has burdened the actual archive with meanings that belong to society and culture at large, which contributions in Archives and Recordkeeping implicitly or explicitly must wrestle with. Through this intellectual tradition the archive is both real and a shadow proxy for forces of power and control, which attracts opprobrium and anger if only subliminally. And this is problematic. It is convenient for power to annul the archive, and projecting power onto the archive does that very nicely.


It is convenient for power to annul archives, because archives have an immense capacity to change the status quo, because they show how contingent and arbitrary the present arrangement of things is - what a house of cards the present is built on. And this is frustrating, because as an archivist you know they are filled with ‘good trouble’ waiting to be discovered and put to use, full of creativity and challenge. But all this immense potential for personal and social change, and for the generation of social justice, is held in check by the institutions themselves, of course, because they consist of people who are part of the public, and have historic residue, but also by the public perception and experience of them. You know that archives as institutions are capable of radical change, because they have gone within living memory from facilities for a relative handful of specialist and academic researchers to places like the Hive in Worcester, filled with life and family and community historians.20 The direction of travel is towards expanding relationships. And yet here we are: archives are still seen and experienced by too many, outside and inside, as elite institutions. Too many marginalised and excluded groups and communities expect an archive to be indifferent or hostile, geared to maintaining the status quo, something which is by and for others: alien, ignorant, distant. As an archivist, you’ve had stuff in your hands that virtually nobody else has seen since it was created. You know that archives are good trouble waiting to happen, and people are kept away by images and expectations, by framing the archive in terms that don’t inherently belong to it. To some archives, yes, and let’s have an analysis of them. To ‘the Archive’, as inherent in an archive as such, no.


In my reading, Archives and Recordkeeping is part of a project to break out of the straitjacket of public perception. That perception has been framed by proxy through appropriation to subvert access to the radical potential that archives represent (and by association museums, libraries and other sources of the past in its own terms, like oral history), to demonstrate a critical self-appraisal and engagement with the issues, and to assert and demonstrate the ethos of service, care and utility which is, can and should be at the heart of archiving: to demonstrate impact and value in relation to a different and more socially just future, in the hope we can get there together in time. Hence the sense of urgency, activism and struggle in the book itself, written pre-pandemic but in the horizon of the climate crisis, the solution to which, if there is one, will only be in social justice and its associated change.


Bearing in mind what Martin Heidegger says about tradition, that it ‘takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence’, forgetting its sources, and making us ‘suppose that going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand’,21 lifting an intellectual tradition from archives which obscures them will allow us to return to archives in their own right. We can place archives alongside museums, libraries, children’s homes, homelessness hostels, prisons and so on as institutions in which society expresses its understandings of what it is to be a human being, for better or for worse. This will free us to engage with institutions across sectors which realise social justice and social change against the conventional grain.


Having just emerged, and still getting my bearings, it may be that this conversation is already happening. Other institutions aside, libraries (which can claim one of the most inspiring social justice initiatives, the National Library of Australia’s 1998-2002 ‘Bringing Them Home Oral History Project’, led by Aboriginal librarian Doreen Mellor, documenting the experiences of Indigenous children taken from their families by the state, and of others who were involved),22 museums, archives and oral historians may already be actively involved in cross-channel communication to coordinate their learnings and understandings.


The underpinnings for that conversation are certainly evident in these books. Both note the weight of institutional limitations and strictures holding back social change in archives and museums generally, and they both give case studies of change. Sarah Smed’s study ‘Behind barbed wire’ and four supporting case studies about the Danish Welfare Museum document the exciting transformation of a long-established institution. Sioned Hughes and Nia Williams’ “‘Nothing about us without us”: the journey to cultural democracy at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales’ charts the contribution of the ‘Hidden Now Heard’ oral history project to the museum’s ten-year vision to put social justice at the centre of its work, ‘changing the way we contribute to and influence civic society’. Kathrin Pabst’s ‘Invite, acknowledge and collect with respect: sensitive narratives at the Vest-Agder Museum, Norway’, in Museums, describes outreach from another established museum service, but also, and helpfully (failures and resistances are essential to learning), the institutional insecurity and fear holding its fuller realisation in check. The Mental Health Recovery Archive, the subject of Sexton, Baker-Brown, Bullimore, Sen and Voyce’s chapter in Archives and Recordkeeping, was a partnership with the very well-established Wellcome Library, and the criticisms and critiques of the authors are insightful and useful.


Both books document how other projects have had to step outside the walls of established institutions in order to thrive, or simply to be. For example, Archives and Recordkeeping describes a ‘wide umbrella of community archives, counter archives, autonomous archives, and social movement archives that constitute an alternative public sphere of memory and counter-narratives’.23 There is Beverley Butler’s ‘Archives ‘‘act back”: re-configuring Palestinian archival constellations and visions of social justice’ and Joel A Blanco-Rivera’s ‘Social justice and historical accountability in Latin America: access to the records of the truth commissions in Chile’, which address archiving in the community in the context of national violence. Susan Pell’s ‘Documenting the fight for the city: the impact of activist archives on anti-gentrification campaigns’, and Rebecka Taves Sheffield’s chapter on lesbian and gay archives noted earlier, address community archives as a response to social exclusion and erasure. The corresponding studies in Museums include the chapters on the Museum of Homelessness and the Glasgow Women’s Library noted earlier, and Manon S Parry, Corrie Tijsseling and Paul van Trigt writing about an online museum in ‘Slow, uncomfortable and badly paid: DisPLACE and the benefits of disability history’. Economic exclusion is addressed in Ying-Ying Lai’s chapter ‘In the name of the museum: the cultural actions and values of the Togo Rural Village Art Museum, Taiwan’ in which an economically precarious and government-neglected agricultural community is transformed into a living art museum.


This conversation is essential and these books contribute to it. Records, objects and books are simply materials which hold the evidence of past experience within them. For those who know how to read the materials, that past experience comes alive in the present. Because it becomes alive in the present, it becomes alive and active in the future, which is always, and at all times, in creation around us. This means that to the very narrow compass of the personal experience and what we can learn from it which each of us brings into living and problem-solving in the world around us, in relation to the future around us, new dimensions of information and experience become available. The more information and experience we have available and at work in the present, the better we can understand and respond creatively and appropriately to the future coming towards us. Engaging with this living past conduces to better individual and social decision making. That this is crucial is being lived out in the world around us at the moment, both in the pandemic and in the climate catastrophe, where disengagement from the past and noses firmly pressed against the glass of the present are taking lives now, and may well take everything in the future.


The ‘digital archive: a caveat: Several case studies in both books highlight the turn to documentation and retention outside or alongside institutions, using the Internet as the archive. Since publication of Archives and Recordkeepingin 2020, the Mental Health Recovery Archive has disappeared as a live site, as did ‘Therapeutic Living’ and its community subsites earlier. In both cases, content has been lost in the ‘archived’ versions on the Internet Archive and the UK WebArchive. The web is an uncertain partner and online storage should not be confused with museums and archives as physical institutions.





1. Nick Barratt, ‘The last word: Archive of the Year 2013', Your Family History, April 2013, p 74.

2. Letter to the trustees of the Mulberry Bush Organisation and of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, from John Gabriel, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Oral History Society, 16 January 2018. For an overview of the Archive's contribution to oral history, see Craig Fees, ‘Gloucestershire: Planned Environment Therapy Trust', Current British News, Oral History, vol 47, no 1, 2019, pp 13-15. Accessed online at, 29 October 2021. The Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre website is archived on the Internet Archive. Accessed online at, 13 November 2021.

3. See Gemma Geldart and Chris Long (eds), Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children c. 1930-1980, 2011; Craig Fees with Gemma Geldart, Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children. Final Report to the Heritage Lottery Fund: An oral history of residential therapeutic child care, c.1930-c.1980, 2011. Both accessed online at, 22 October 2021.

4. Community Archives and Heritage Group's Most Impactful Archive, 2012, and Your Family History Magazine's Archive of the Year, 2013.

5. Adele Chynoweth, Goodna Girls: A History of Children in a Queensland Mental Asylum, Canberra: ANU Press, 2020, accessed online at,26 October 2021: ‘I decided to do what I could - with my own personal resources, and within the bounds of my qualifications and area of professional expertise, as well as academic research ethics - to draw public attention to the experiences of this group of women survivors', ppxi-xii. Goodna Girls was originally intended to be part of this review essay.

6. Blanco-Rivera writes, ‘As of August 2017, the law is still under the legislative process' (p 160): Joel A Blanco-Rivera, ‘Social justice and historical accountability in Latin America: access to the records of the truth commissions in Chile', in David A Wallace, Wendy M Duff, Renee Saucier and Andrew Flinn (eds), Archives, Recordkeeping and Social Justice, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Jessica and Matthew Turtle note that ‘The duties imposed by the [Homelessness Reduction] act come into force in April 2018' (p 47): Jessica and Matthew Turtle, ‘Rewriting the script: power and change through a Museum of Homelessness', in Adele Chynoweth, Bernadette Lynch, Klaus Petersen and Sarah Smed (eds), Museums and Social Change: Challenging the Unhelpful Museum, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

7. To situate yourself as an oral historian into this: archives are the end stage of a three-step process which begins with record makers. These are the people who create the document. As an oral historian, you become a recordmaker as soon as you turn the recorder on or fill in your spreadsheet. You are the equivalent of the ‘scribe' in Beverley Butler's chapter ‘Archives “act back”: re-configuring Palestinian archival constellations and visions of social justice', and you share the role of record keeper with the perfidious and inefficient colonial treaty-writer in Victorian British Columbia described in Raymond O Frogner's chapter “‘Hang onto these words”: Indigenous title and the social meanings of archival custody', both in Wallace, Duff, Saucier and Flinn, 2020. Revolving the point of view, your interviewee ,and the Indigenous participant in the 1854 British Columbian treaty negotiations who records the terms of the treaty in oral narrative and hands it down, are recordmakers too. The second step towards archives, recordkeeping, is also about you; in GDPR-equivalent terms you are a data processor, and as long as the recording and the spreadsheet are in your possession, you are keeping the record. The members of the Indigenous British Columbia Snuneymuxw community, who carry the oral history of the 1854 treaty all the way to court in 1963 to secure recognition of their hunting rights, are recordkeepers too.

8. Bernadette Lynch, ‘Introduction: neither helpful nor unhelpful - a clear way forward for the useful museum', in Chynoweth, Lynch, Petersen and Smed, 2020, p 1.

9. Susan Pell, ‘Documenting the fight for the city: the impact of activist archives on anti-gentrification campaigns', in Wallace, Duff, Saucier and Flinn, 2020, p 179.

10. Wallace, Duff, Saucier and Flinn, 2020, pxiv.

11. Lindsey Dodd, ‘The disappearing child: observations on oral history, archives and affects', Oral History, vol 49, no 2, 2021, pp 37-48.

12. Rebecka Taves Sheffield, ‘Social justice struggles for rights, equality, and identity: the role of lesbian and gay archives', in Wallace, Duff, Saucier and Flinn, 2020: ‘Within information studies, the concept of shared heritage is most commonly associated with museum studies. Sandell (1998,2003) was among the first to suggest that museums might become agents of social inclusion by working with communities to ensure participation from disenfranchised groups with the goal of producing exhibits and museum experiences that better represent marginalised histories'.

13. ‘The [1854] records were in fact “rediscovered” once the colonial society was ready to discover and deal with them as records embodying legal rights and title for Indigenous peoples'. Raymond O Frogner, “‘Hang onto these words”: Indigenous title and the social meanings of archival custody', in Wallace, Duff, Saucier and Flinn, 2020, p 100.

14. This often-quoted but (as Graham Smith points out) rarely referenced phrase appears in Brian Harrison, ‘Oral history and recent political history', Oral History, vol 1, no 3,1972, p 46, as part of a longer statement. Harrison writes: ‘If statesmen could be persuaded to record their acts and motives the same evening, he [AJP Taylor] continues, “there would be some use in it. Similarly diaries, when not rewritten, are useful. But old men drooling about their youth - No.”' Graham Smith calls the failure to cite ‘somewhat ironic, given that it most likely originates from a piece by Brian Harrison first published in Oral History and may well have been based on personal correspondence'. Graham Smith, Historical Insights: Focus on Research: Oral History, Coventry: History at the HEA in conjunction with the Institute of Historical Research, 2010, n11, p 7. Accessed online at, 29 October 2021.

15. Richard A Lynch, ‘Archive', in L Lawlor and J Nale (eds), The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, p 21. Accessed online at doi:10.1017/ CB09781139022309.006, 31 October 2021.

16. Lynch, 2014, p 22.

17. ‘By this term I do not mean the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past, or as evidence of a continuing identity; nor do I mean the institutions, which, in a given society, make it possible to record and preserve those discourses that one wishes to remember and keep in circulation'. Michel Foucault (translated by AM Sheridan Smith), The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, pp 128-29.

18. Lynch, 2014, p 20: ‘Foucault used the term “archive” most commonly in the years 1967-1969, in a number of interviews before and just after the publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge as well as in the book itself. In each of these interviews, he offers a definition of the term - all of which are variations on the definition given in The Archaeology of Knowledge. After 1969, however, the notion of the archive virtually disappeared from Foucault's vocabulary, as his interests shifted'. See also Lynch, 2014, pp 120-25. Accessed online at doi:10.1017/CB09781139 022309.024, 31 October 2021.

19. Famously in Jacques Derrida (translated by Eric Prenowitz), ‘Archive fever: a Freudian impression', Diacritics, vol 25, no 2,1995, pp 9-63. I saw Derrida in performance in his ‘archive fever' period in London in the 1990s. The performance was electric, but as someone who was still experiencing life as a theatre professional I came away thinking he was an intellectual charlatan; for better or worse I have not been able to get beyond that direct and personal experience of him.

20. See contributions from archivists in ‘Celebrating memory: an oral history of the Society of Archivists and its members' project, 1996-2000', directed by Craig Fees, British Lbrary, Society of Archivists Oral History Project, shelfmark C1181. Accessed online at, 28 October 2021. The Hive is a partnership of the University of Worcester and Worcestershire County Council, in a purpose-built building, with the library, the archive and the general heritage collections rolled into one impressive public gathering and study centre. See The Hive [web page],, accessed 8 October 2021.

21. Martin Heidegger (translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), Being and Time, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962, p 43.

22. National Library of Australia, ‘Bringing Them Home Oral History project’. Accessed online at, 29 October 2021.

21 Renée Saucier, ‘Preface to section 2: Categorisations and patterns in the case studies', in Wallace, Duff, Saucier and Flinn, 2020, p 71.