The theme of the 44th annual Scholar and Feminist Conference of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), taking place on February 8-9, 2019, is "Politics and Ethics of the Archive." BCRW Director and Professor of Religion Elizabeth Castelli shares her thoughts on how archives have changed in the digital world, why archivists must approach their work using an ethical lens, and the ways in which archives are political.

BCRW Director & Professor of Religion Elizabeth Castelli
When you use the word “archive” in 2019, to what are you referring? How is this notion of “archive” different from the one commonly held a generation ago?

I use the word "archive" to describe repositories of a wide range of artifacts — textual, visual, audio, video, and material. These artifacts can be published or unpublished, public and private, documentary and polemical. With apologies to the journalists among us, I believe that archives are truly the first draft of history.

How have social media and digital culture transformed archival practices?

Certainly social media and digital culture have changed how we communicate, how we save the many sorts of artifacts that have traditionally been part of "the archive." The paradox of traditional archives is the materiality of so-called "ephemera" — posters, fliers, photographs, newsletters, and so on. Since these sorts of items now circulate predominantly in digital formats, they haven't quite lost their materiality, but they have certainly been pixelated! But the other side of this question is how digital formats have made it possible for archival materials to be much more accessible to many more people, thanks to various forms of open-source platforms and projects. Though the digital is a facsimile of the "real" artifact, the digital also makes the artifact more available — and quite often "better-than-real" in that one can explore the facsimile in a more fine-grained way, albeit from a distance.

In what ways are archives political? What makes discussion over their ethics a feminist project?

When we say that archives are political, we're talking about differentials of power at all sorts of levels: Whose materials get collected in the first place? Who is empowered to catalogue, organize, and curate those collections? Who is authorized to have access to the materials and to interpret them? How does the institutional location of a particular archive shape its existence and the security of its future?

Talking about the ethics of archives is a feminist project for a number of reasons: feminists have long asked questions about issues of representation and documentation, the textures of social difference, and the authority by which some experiences and histories have been positioned as representative and normative — often at the expense of those individuals and communities pushed to the margins. Now that we have archives of earlier generations of feminist movements, we can ask: Who was in the room when strategies and tactics were decided? Whose voices were muted and muffled? How do we represent the historical absence of certain perspectives rather than simply reproducing them in the decisions we make about curating and exhibiting archives today?

What is a recent archival practice that you applaud?

I attended a wonderful public symposium last September at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. The symposium was entitled "Archives, Memory, and Identity," and it brought together archivists, academics, artists, and activists to talk about emerging ways of creating archives, especially for traditionally underrepresented and precarious communities. I was especially impressed by a couple of projects showcased at this symposium: one such project is the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal, which hosts archives of several Native American nations, mainly from the Pacific Northwest. The project has put the communities' ways of knowing at the center of its organization so that texts, photographs, artifacts, videos, and other materials are arranged in relation to one another according to the communities' categories of organization rather than according to a system imposed by non-native archivists. More strikingly, portions of the archive are marked in such a way as to signal that not all materials are accessible to just anyone. As they express it on the site, "As a matter of sovereignty and respect, each tribal path follows the protocols of the tribes, allows for tribal curation of materials, and defines access based on cultural values."

A second project that impressed me was created by a Chilean artist named Maria Veronica San Martin, whose recent project, Dignidad (created in collaboration with the National Archive of Chile, the Association for Memory and Human Rights Colonia Dignidad, and human rights lawyer Winfried Hempel), captures and transmits the history of torture and repression of dissent in 1970s and 1980s Chile through the artistic recontextualizing of audio recordings, transcripts, and material artifacts that bring the story of imprisonment and torture to life.


More information about the Scholar and Feminist Conference, including registration information and the conference schedule, is available at the BCRW website.