METAmorphising Archives - Preserving memory

Posted on April 17, 2020

The unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic is trying times for many nations and the global community is reflecting on documentation and sources of information in archiving the present for future research. Archivists and many others are asking how one can archive these rich sources and diverse sources of information in researching the future scientific, sociological, political and cultural aspects of the pandemic. A recent blog reports on the importance of archiving documentation of the Covid-19 pandemic, https://sr.ithaka.org/blog/documenting-the-covid-19-pandemic/ and reflects on how this initiative will result in a Covid-19 Archive, in developing and preserving the memory of the pandemic.

Academic libraries are no longer perceived as the primary drivers in digital preservation since there is a general consensus that the notion of “archives” has fundamentally changed. It is also encouraging to see initiatives such as the collaboration between Archive-It and the International Preservation Consortium’s (IIPC) on collecting and preserving web content related the ongoing novel Corona virus outbreak, https://netpreserveblog.wordpress.com/2020/02/13/cdg-collection-novel-coronavirus/.

UNESCO has called for greater support to the global documentary heritage amid COVID-19. They are calling all States, memory institutions, community, private, university and public archives to, “harness the educational, scientific and artistic potential of documentary heritage in efforts to address the COVID-19 outbreak. As a part of this effort to mobilize documentary heritage, UNESCO has launched the Memory of the World (MoW) programme https://en.unesco.org/programme/mow. For interest, Africa has only four archives that have made it onto the Memory of the World Register: the CODESA Archives; Archives of the Dutch East India Company; Criminal Court Case No. 253/1963, State versus Mandela and others, the Liberation Struggle Living Archive Collection and the Bleek Archive Collection.

Mainstream repositories such as academic and state-run cultural heritage archives need to adapt as archives are fast moving beyond borders, digital realms and into the future. The meaning of archives is not just rapidly changing, but mutating and evolving as the spectrum of archives widens, calling for the “metamorphosis of archives” (Taufik Asmiyanto 2019). This simply means that while institutional archives and museums remain memory institutions, the continued effort of preservation of collective memory remains a worthy cause. During current times of uncertainty, we have to reflect upon how archives respond in such times of current change and insecurity is a real challenge. University museums and archives nationwide have closed doors too. Few museum archives have the technological resources to go fully digital and the challenge of the constancy of the archive profession will depend on the responses to the growing challenges of the digital world and the adaption that many archives need to seriously consider standing on the brink of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

The UP Museums and associated archives are no exception and are no immune to change either. We are currently in the final phase of a major preservation project, funded by the US Ambassadors fund for Cultural Preservation https://eca.state.gov/cultural-heritage-center/ambassadors-fund-cultural-preservation in association with the US Embassy in Pretoria, to establish the Mapungubwe Archive. Before this archive can be useful in the research and museum world, the important historical materials within the archive need to be preserved. Historical documents are being placed in acid-free storage which will prevent, or at least, slow deterioration of the paper materials. Photographs and maps are also undergoing intense preservation. To an extent the metamorphosis of the Mapungubwe Archive is being considered, for example when the physical preservation work is done, the next logical phase will be to digitize.

Museum archive staff remains committed to the AFCP project and are working remotely from home during the national lockdown. Fortunately, some archivists can work from home on electronic media and to date over 120 newspaper articles related to Mapungubwe have been added to this digital archive.

Recent events have emphasized that prevention is better than a cure. This is also true with archival collections. It is important to protect documents, before its condition is beyond repair. This means, that it is better to make sure the original documents are protected, through preservation and reprography. Reprography is the act of making copies of historical documents, photographs and other archival materials, so that researchers can work with copies of the material and limit the handling of the original records. These events of the 21st century will call upon archivists to continue preservation of documentary evidence and will force us to consider how we ‘futurise’ the Mapungubwe Archive and other archives as the collective memory of the institution. The UP Museums have commenced plans in 2020 to formally establish their first archive for the institutional collections and post Covid-19  archives will certainly also be on the strategic agenda going forward.

- Author Michelle de la Harpe & Sian Tiley-Nel
Published by Nicole Hoffmann

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