National Research Foundation Chair in Archive and Public Culture PROFESSOR CAROLYN HAMILTON maps out the Initiative’s intellectual terrain and research territory
As contemporary South Africa negotiates its many pasts – violent and racialised, poetic and political, entangled and divided – inherited notions of archive and inherited archives both constrain and nurture interrogations of the past and imaginings of the future. Likewise, fresh ideas of archive and new archives impose new limitations and portend their own possibilities.
The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative is an enquiry into these inheritances and the limitations and possibilities of contemporary developments around them. Located primarily in the creative arts, history, anthropology and literary studies, it is a trans-disciplinary endeavour hospitable to all fields where archive presents itself as a subject of enquiry. The Initiative actively embraces material culture, visual forms, landscapes, bodies, cultural repertoires and everyday practices, opening to the recognition of archive beyond documents, and in places seldom deemed ‘archives’.
The Research Initiative gives attention to the work that the past was made to do at various times in the past, and is being made to do in the present, along with the notions of archive brought into play to enable that work.
In contemporary South African political and cultural life there are at once intense longings for a rich and fulsome knowledge of the ancient past, but also profound suspicions about the collections of the colonial and apartheid eras, which speak to the remote past. Recognising these currents, one of the focus areas within the Initiative concerns the remote South African past. Our work accords critical attention to how that past was captured in colonial and apartheid scholarship in the early racial sciences – in Philology, Linguistics, Anthropology, Bantu Studies, Archaeology and Ethnomusicology – and what evidentiary basis was marshalled in support of the findings of these disciplines.
We explore artistic and literary appropriations, augmentations and creations of archive, and the particular ways in which varied visual forms – artworks, art books, photographs and films, as well as performances and exhibitions – capture or imagine time, not only remembering, invoking and constituting archive but also its absence.
We are especially interested in understanding the role of material culture and visual renditions, in underwriting knowledge about the remote past. Colonial- and Apartheid-era scholarship had its own conventions for the collection and interpretation of objects. A marked feature of these conventions was the interpretation of objects as cultural items. Their assignment to museums without attention to their provenance and their utilisation as testimony to societies without history, along with the early evaluation of oral materials as unreliable, rendered those societies effectively archiveless. Our research actively positions the material and visual collections held in museums, heritage sites and elsewhere, as archives:
A key move in the effort to engage the pre-colonial in a postcolonial that does not have a pre-colonial documentary archival inheritance involves destabilisation of the seemingly natural division of archives and museum collections and that the move to name (or infer) the museum as an archive foregrounds the ability of the museum collection to speak to the past and not simply to a timeless tribal present (Hamilton, 2009).
The projects linked to this theme offer accounts of the circumstances of assembly, the history of the migrations of collections, and their current conditions of existence. This research reminds us that the various elements of tainted colonial and apartheid-era collections have distinct provenances and life stories of their own that need to be known in order for their potentially rich postcolonial archival possibilities to be realised. The enquiry opens up to settings elsewhere in the world where forms of domination depended on in-depth knowledge of those being ruled.
We interrogate the politics of commemoration, the mobilisation of public memory, and the challenges of public memory haunted by loss, whether of people, lands or of archive itself.
In post-apartheid South Africa, the concepts of intangible heritage, tradition and indigenous knowledge have entered official discourse in powerful ways, highlighting other kinds of contemporary inheritances which trace roots to the distant past, inheritances found in landscape, in everyday practices, cultural repertoires and cosmologies. The Research Initiative investigates these currently valorised and officialised inheritances, interrogating their archive aspirations and public lives. In these enquiries we track the variety of ways in which the past and its legacies have been ‘known’, paying special attention to that which is deemed to be the archive and evidentiary bases, and the conditions of the acts of deeming.
Certain inheritances are ignored by contemporary officialisation, consecrated nowhere in the colonial and apartheid museums and archives, and held outside of institutions. All of these inheritances, the conditions of their respective disavowal, valorisation, officialisation, discounting and neglect, and the archival notions, which are at play in and around them, are subjects of the enquiry.