We recently had the opportunity to attend the Society of Archivists’ conference in Manchester. With the title ‘We Are What We Keep’, the conference was a chance to explore and revisit concepts surrounding how and why records are preserved for posterity with engaging talks given by many eminent speakers. Particularly interesting was Terry Cook’s broad sweeping and philosophical paper concerning the past, present and future of archival theory. This talk really brought into focus the great responsibility we have at the National Maritime Museum to play our part in ensuring the survival of what is, in essence, our nation’s history and heritage.
The President of the Society of Archivists, now Archives and Records Association, outlined his past career as an archivist and the changes that he had observed over the decades. This had us both thinking of the archival legacy of the NMM and how our collection has come into being – a fascinating history in itself.
On a more personal level, the three days of talks reminded us both of why we had entered the archive profession and was certainly an uplifting experience. A heart-warming session was delivered by Jenny Wong discussing the hidden histories of the Manchester Chinese Archive. Jenny’s talk, accompanied by Chinese dance and music, was a perfect demonstration of how archives can be used by a community to tell the story of a shared past. Perhaps the most thought provoking paper was Louise Ray’s ‘The Living Archive’: myth, reality or aspiration?’ This generated much debate and got us all thinking as it touched upon the questions of why and for whom do we keep an archive? Are the records we hold being used and for what purposes?
In a sense the records we hold encapsulate the lives of those who kept them; and these people are brought to life again through our researchers. Without these records it would be impossible for us to deliver any of the education sessions and public events that allow Museum visitors to explore the past. So much of that past is still visible through the chance survival of archives and, if we are what we keep, we must be very careful that what we keep is representative of everybody. Fortunately the profession has come a long way in recent decades and chance has been replaced by more systematic collecting policies. That said, at the Museum we still get a good number of kind offers from people wishing to donate fascinating manuscripts found in attics and boxes under beds. Who knows, perhaps one day the fact that two archivists were inspired by a conference in Manchester will be of interest to future generations!
Mike and Richard (Assistant Archivists)