Intangible heritage and the archive

Posted on December 17, 2014
Apartheid has left an indelible mark on my brain. Aside from the places I still cannot 'see' (1), because we were 'not allowed' and my often giggly and breathy admission to loving Pierneef's art(2), I have retained a knee jerk suspicion of any official texts and by virtue of its associative nature, places which create these texts (media, government departments, schools) and the places which store them such as archives. The first archives which presented wobbly information, changing narratives and interpretations were those of my own family. Photographs would be interpreted, re-interpreted and sophisticated layer upon layer would be added or erased as further knowledge was shared or contexts changed and exchanged. Documents, such as my grandfather's title deed, marked with his 'X', which signified his loss of property under the Group Areas Act, only emerged in my world post-1994. Of course, schooling at Livingstone Senior Secondary in Claremont, compounded this taut relationship as we were taught to rigorously interrogate every text we encountered. Who remembers the times of; 'projectiles', 'permanent removal', 'swart gevaar' and 'rooi gevaar', terms which littered our media and for any Livingstonian, deconstructing the texts pervading our times and society became as natural as breathing.

And so, it's not surprising therefore that the written word/texts in different forms have always been met by my intense scrutiny and by default, places which house these words even more so.

One of the most catalytic experiences I had with 'The Archive' was encountering the Mayibuye Archive, now called UWC-RIM Mayibuye Archive. I loved that place, and still do. Not only for the immense wealth of its collections, but for the ways in which my experience of THE Archive was mediated by such awesome archivists as Anthea Josias, Graham Goddard and Hamilton Baduza. And I cannot help but wonder whether this catalytic experience for me was driven by their own activism their sense of archivists as activists, and the continuation of their own individual and collective natural trajectory from anti-apartheid activist to archivist. All four archivists mentioned above, though specialists in very specific areas of archival material,demonstrated an incurable attention to detail,seemed able to lift the document,object,artwork from its disembodied place in the repository back into the vibrant,dynamic contexts of their making,imbueing the artefact with life. Whilst obsessively concerned with capturing and documenting the specificity of the singular object biography,they magically wove the object/s into an imagined place for me. Sense making. Meaning. And an elasticity between past and present and, I dare say, future.

The example of archival practice as activism, embodied by the four archivists mentioned above, was, almost two decades, later reinforced by an encounter with the Collections Manager at Michigan State University. She patiently explained the level of detailed focussed capturing of data from archaeological collections from pablos in Mexico and how they were now being used by the very same pablos for asserting intellectual property rights against legal claims on the provenance and Intellectual Property Rights associated with seeds for corn against multinationals.

It is at this nexus of archivist and activist that I wish to explore the relationship between THE Archive and Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). The construction of intangible cultural heritage as (r)evolutionary (as opposed to world heritage) is not entirely new. The (r)evolution globally of thinking about ICH have been traced at length by various writers such as; Kirschenblatt- Gimblett (2004), Kurin (2004), and Deacon and Smeets (2013) in various articles. The creation of the UNESCO 2003 Convention in many respects defers to the very noble premise that intangible cultural heritage, defined as living heritage, emphasises community ownership and custodianship and is inextricably linked to sustainable development and livelihoods and the well-being of these custodians or communities of practice. Often referred to as the 'spirit of the convention',these articulations attempt to shift decision making and safeguarding from the hands of those in Authority to those for whom the practices (communities of practice) have intrinsic or ancestral value and meaning. In most of the case studies presented as successful safeguarding practices for intangible cultural heritage, the measures which dominate are are premised invariably on measures which serve to ensure or secure the well-being of the community of practice. I deliberately use the term 'well-being' so as to defy the deductive and rather colonial arguments which abound for heritage and development co-existing in some miracle ways for the interests largely of those defined as in need of development, such as, the global south and development as purely infrastructural rather than inclusive of sacred or spiritual values, reconciliation and peace building and resilience. All of the latter being very necessary across all societies in the world.

There is of course, an inherent tension between a convention ratified by States Parties and the spirit of 'activism' in which it is written. The problematics of having a 'universal' declaration presents a challenge to the implementation of its guidelines as 'universal' often obscures the local. This argument is based on the thoughts of Professor Gurnah on cosmopolitism and cosmopolitisms.His theory of cosmopolitanisms as plural has some meaningful implications.They imply that there are multiple centres,a multitude of ways of being and seeing in the world and that potentially,these could co-exist. The devil lies in the details.Something which universal declarations invariably fail at.

It is in the detail then, holding the wider, broader context in view that I see the archivist as activist,embracing new roles and new ways of documenting, accessioning and contextualising intangible cultural heritage. Much in the same ways I had described the archivists above and their perception of what they were doing and why. There is need for an on-going curiosity about ICH as living and the ever changing multiplicity of meanings and values associated with their practice and for the archivist the accompanying challenge to mediate these multiplicities with invested (read - communities of practice) and disinvested (read - not a member of the community of practice) audiences. Similarly, the archivist as activist would know when to relinquish officialise and THE Archive as spatially and institutionally defined to communities of practice. They would begin to gently explore with communities of practice in discussions around safeguarding measures and practices, existing or remembered ways of 'archiving' so that collective memory, practitioners, custodians, place, object/material culture become the very archives. The notion of 'well-being' therefore, needs to be carefully explored and understood within the context of the place and roles of local existing modes of transmission, collection and documentation and where necessary new measures mediated.

In conclusion then, the archivist as activist, is required to be open to change, re-interpretations, multiple meanings and an almost rigorous form of understanding and working framed by the notion that 'the past is present is future'. And that a discussion of safeguarding practices and the well-being of communities includes explorations of how THE Archive is vested and invested within communities of practice.

End notes

1) The ever present, still not abolished intake of breath to steady myself on navigating the stairs of Artscape (formerly Nico Malan) or the gorgeous expanse of beach around the corner/mountain from my home which had a sign saying 'Whites Only' are examples of these ever present 'blind spots' of mine
2) For explanation of my discomfort read; Pierneef and the Nationalist agenda: Jennifer Beningfield in, The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa Routledge 2006


Pierneef and the Nationalist Agenda: Jennifer Beningfield in, the Frightened Land: Land, Landscapes and Politics in South Africa in the twentieth century. Routledge, 2006
Richard Kurin in Museum International Volume 56 No.1-2, 2004
Kirschenblatt-Gimblett in Museum International Volume 56 No.1-2, 2004
Deacon and Smeets in Heritage and Society Volume 6 No.2, November 2013 1-15
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Public Lecture, University of Mauritius, 2014

Deirdre Prins-Solani is an independent heritage activist who explores the relationships between disciplines and sectors so as to create through action research, a better understanding of the weave between safeguarding heritage and creating sustainable livelihoods for all.