Archival Science

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 1–12

Introduction: memory ethics—or the presence of the past in the present


    • School of InformationUniversity of Michigan
Original paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10502-011-9140-7

Cite this article as:
Wallace, D.A. Arch Sci (2011) 11: 1. doi:10.1007/s10502-011-9140-7


This special issue of Archival Science examines the orientations, paradoxes, and tensions evident in the ethical struggles over the construction of the past and the degree to which archival agency can intercede in supporting a broadly drawn historical justice that also engages contemporary issues. Inspired and framed by a May 2008 conference hosted by School of Information and Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the following essays offer case study examinations of how archival institutions and archivists contribute to societal memory systems through both their action and inaction, especially in regard to societal struggles over the meanings to be derived from the past.



Archivists normatively position themselves as impartial and honest brokering custodians of the past, immune from the pressures and persuasions that conflict the rest of contemporary society. Despite the resilience of this philosophy, archival responsibilities are increasingly being seen as having broader social significances beyond seemingly straightforward records curation and management of the institutions where archives are kept. These emerging responsibilities have been well represented in this journal over the past 10 years. They are also well evidenced within the interdisciplinary field of memory studies, which views archives as a critical and problematic component of memory, as well as within wide-ranging social and legal systems where archives are highlighted in connection with human rights and social justice efforts. The ethical responsibilities of archivists and archival institutions in light of the vital and increasingly recognized memory construction roles archives contribute to society—whether framed as a form of institutionalized witnessing or mnemonic memory—demand ongoing and sustained examination. This is especially necessary in light of the social identity promoted by archivists as guardians and trustworthy intergenerational transmitters of the past.

This orientation, the paradoxes and tensions they evidence, and the degree to which archival agency can intercede in supporting a broadly drawn historical justice that also engages contemporary issues served as the inspiration for a conference organized and hosted in May 2008 by School of Information and Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Archives and the Ethics of Memory Construction” explored how archival institutions and archivists contribute to societal memory systems through both their action and inaction, especially in regard to societal struggles over memory and the meanings to be derived from the past. Struggles over memory, which feature regularly in the mass media, evidence sharp contestations over preservation, destruction, access, use, and control of documents and archival heritages. They serve as concrete reminders of ongoing conflicts enacted through narrative, meaning, and legitimacy. As a result, a cornerstone tenet framing the conference was the recognition that the present and the past are not so easily disentangled. They are, in fact, deeply intertwined, following Bourdieu’s notion of habitus alluded to in the title of this introduction. Each can expand or limit the possibilities of the other. Or, as noted by the sociologist Stanley Cohen (2001), “[t]here is no exact line between denying the past and denying the present” (p. 117, italics original).

The conference was explicitly designed to foreground such dynamics and the roles played by archivists—though their professional identity, individual agency, and societal responsibilities—in regard to how the highly mutable past is versioned. The program combined invited papers from leading archival and other memory thinkers alongside ample discussion and reflection time to ensure dialogue, debate, and consensus building. Twelve speakers (3 chairs–facilitators, 8 presenters, and 1 summarizer; see “Appendix” for the full conference agenda) offered thought-provoking examinations of the archival and memory ethics challenges posed by a wide range of cases: the racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in the early 1980s; the early twentieth century Armenian genocide committed by Turkey; Norway’s maltreatment of its “war children” from Word War II; the complexities of researching Native American-related documentation; collecting Robben Island apartheid-era prisoner memories; the stagnation of archives and justice in post-apartheid South Africa; and “Yellow Peril” race-baiting in early twentieth century America. All of these presentations demonstrated how contemporary knowledges about the past signal both power and weakness across official and more informally constituted archives.

The conference drew eighty-five registrants from across all regions of the United States as well as from Canada, Norway, and South Africa. They represented a broad range of disciplines (law, sociology, museology, oral history, women’s studies, American culture, and history), though the overwhelming majority belonged to the archival profession. Archival registrants represented a diversity of archival institutions, including government, corporate, historical society, college and university, and special collections. Faculty, masters, and doctoral students from graduate archival education programs comprised roughly one-third of all registrants. In combination, these numbers demonstrated a high level of interest among academic and professional archivists on the issues associated with the ethics of memory construction. Of the 10.5 h allocated for conference sessions, the majority of this time manifested in registrant feedback, discussion, commentary, and debate.

Perhaps, the most pressing concern raised across the conference, both through presentations and in the substantial attendee reactions they stimulated, was the need to better delineate the types and forms of power archivists enact as memory agents, including areas where their power is deeply limited or compromised. In her summation of the proceedings, Margaret Hedstrom asked whether archival assumptions of control act in reality as a device that masks the lack of power archivists actually hold in determining the historical record? What role should archivists play when their parent organization, society, or government engages in willful and purposeful historical amnesia to erase a discomforting past? Other key themes that emerged at the conference included as follows: archives and the public trust; the degree to which the health of a democracy is measurable by its relationship to its own past; the value of examining the past positively around struggles for justice; and the imperative to work on filling in the gaps in the historical record that do not want to be filled. To paraphrase sociologist Müge Göçek, the reality of this latter dynamic presents ample opportunity to add texture and “recover colors from a whitewashed past.” Göçek’s phrasing was a fundamental component of her keynote address. She presented her own personal journey and experiences as a researcher in Turkish archives looking for evidence of the early twentieth century Armenian genocide and demonstrated how the control of archives, information, and knowledge is directly related to political legitimacy. The conference presentations and discussions confirmed that archives, seemingly benign localities, can maintain heretical contents that can be harnessed to reconfigure accepted and comfortable/comforting pasts. In a very real sense, archives hold cracks for under-examined claims of legitimacy. The conference also demonstrated that such possibilities can be neutralized by archival collecting that ignores certain streams of documentation while privileging others.

Two presentations from this conference, by Harris and Valderhaug, are included in this special issue. Five additional essays especially commissioned for this issue, authored by Hastings, Josias, Rosenberg, Wallace and Stuchell, and Wheeler, speak directly to themes raised throughout the conference. As with the conference, most of these essays are frequently embedded within deeply personal histories, indicating that supposed clear boundaries between objective–subjective and professional–personal are not so easily, or preferably, unraveled. They offer an array of case studies drawn across a wide expanse of space and time: Norway’s treatment of its “war children” and the difficulties of documentation-based compensation efforts; the roles of records as enablers of the United States’ internment of nearly 90% of its residents of Japanese–American ancestry during World War II and later how these same records were deployed for a formal apology and other redress efforts; the ongoing responsibilities of archivists in collecting and providing online access to racist sheet music and the imperative for archivists to contextualize such controversial and painful materials; the experience of one Jewish family’s near extermination during the Holocaust as played out in a long ignored cache of family letters and the surprising role these letters played in forging new familial, community, and artistic ties; the “social constructedness” of emergent collective memory framings in post-apartheid South Africa through the expansion of archival activity conducted outside the bounds of traditional archives; the current dissipation of the “archives for justice” energies evident in the transition from apartheid to democracy and how they might be recast with renewed relevance to current social justice challenges in contemporary South Africa; and how a partial biography of the 9/11 Commission’s archival record as it was being assembled demonstrates a politics of information that substantially challenged efforts to construct an unfiltered narrative of the attacks.

Though these cases speak to particular contexts within specific political, cultural, and historical settings, each offers insights that transcend their primary boundaries and offer cross-cutting connections from that promise richer, deeper, and more meaningful understandings of archives and the ethics of memory construction. They acknowledge the need for greater self-examination and action within our increasingly complex and interconnected global environment. Specifically, they speak to:
  • Responsibilities and roles for archivists. Especially the tensions between the cultural authority derived from being seen as even handed professionals and the overt and subtle pulls of power.

  • Complex relationships between ethics, memory, justice, and politics.

  • Generational and transgenerational responsibilities to the past and the effect of meeting of those responsibilities, or not, on the present.

  • The tenuous role of veracity in the versioning of the past.

  • The adequacy and inadequacy of memory as a remedy or device to use the past to render a more just and humane present.

  • The potency of archives to replicate, challenge, and even undermine ingrained perceptions about the past. And to create new pasts.

Such emphases find affinity with a broader interdisciplinary literature on the ethics of memory. Although it is too vast to neatly characterize here, key texts, incorporated below, connect to these themes and signal interconnections. They reflect Platt’s (2005).

preference…for [cultural heritage institutions] that get us to think of history as an argument rather than a received truth; that encourages us to grapple with the past as a process of disorientation and reorientation rather than a neatly packaged, sanitized parable. This is not…an easy task. It is disturbing to open up the settled past….But it is more disturbing to leave the past comfortably shrouded in amnesia (p. 181).

Blustein’s (2008) examination of memory and its relationships to “doing justice to the past” also speak to this track. Anchored in perspectives from moral, social and political philosophy, he focuses on “how and why memory should be preserved and transmitted…[including] the moral responsibilities associated with memory” (p. 2). Rosenberg’s essay in this issue speaks to these challenges when he notes his own recognition that the opening up of his family’s Holocaust archive would indeed be painful, but this pain was modulated by his sense of obligation not only to those murdered but to future generations as well. These family letters allow one to see that each of the millions who perished represented a unique individual tragedy. In line with this Blustein sees remembrance as a moral imperative. He also recognizes that this imperative is confounded by the transient and vulnerable natures of memory and that these features can also serve to challenge and complicate the adequacy of remembrance efforts (p. 33). Though he recognizes the value of symbolic reparations for the descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators of wrongdoing, such as a formal apology for past transgressions, Blustein also recognizes that such actions are partial and inadequate if they fail to commit to:

tell the truth about what happened, to set the historical record straight. Otherwise, the symbolic gestures will appear to be primarily for the benefit of the responsible parties—a way of assuaging their guilt or shame—and may only compound the original offense and fuel resentment on the part of the descendents (p. 167).

This challenge of rectifying the accounts of the past is also evident in the essays in this issue contributed by Hastings, Valderhaug, Wheeler, and Josias. Hastings shows how the battle over the legality of the internment of Japanese–Americans by the US government during World War II implicated a conscious hiding and manipulation of the historical record by the Department of Justice and the feeding of known falsehoods to the Supreme Court as it was adjudicating the issue. This falsification was only uncovered decades later and contributed to overturning the Court’s judgment that legalized the internment. For Valderhaug, the superficiality of material compensation to Norway’s war children is compounded if the war children’s “own stories remain untold and unrecognized” through their continued absence in the archival record. He notes that such an absence requires the archivist to intervene to ensure that such stories are in fact collected and transmitted to Norwegian society. Likewise, Wheeler’s examination of the overtly racist imagery of minstrelsy heritage in the United States renders a biting commentary on institutions that either prefer to ignore such realities embedded in this imagery or submerge their existence out of an uncertainty on how to present and represent them due to the discomforts they bring. To Wheeler, these agonies embody a greater concern over non-offending “political correctness” than with confronting the difficult responsibilities in ethically providing access to racist materials that, unchecked, can serve to nourish ever-present racist streams in American society, even violent ones. Josias’s review of the efforts of rehabilitation of post-apartheid collective memory in South Africa highlights a range of newly established archival projects, many operating outside the frameworks of normative archival practices. Beyond straightforward collecting, these projects—such as the Robben Island Museum, Freedom Park, the District Six Museum, the Constitution Hill Heritage Project, and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue—also provide a “space in which new discourses, processes and practices of collective or social memory formation are emerging.” However, these transformations are neither easy nor straightforward.

It is this dynamic interplay between victims and perpetrators and their descendents, and the stories that get told about the past—what to remember, how to remember, how much prominence to give to the remembering, etc.—which embeds the “ethics of memory” within a “politics of memory” (Blustein, p. 168). This aspect of memory construction—as both reflective of and generated within a political context—has been amplified by Booth (2006) through his advocacy of the study of memory as a platform for examining politics, identity in political communities, and the roles each may play in enabling justice. This orientation parallels Wallace and Stuchell’s contribution which tracks in great detail how the politics of public knowledge and resultant access battles over classification and declassification invisibly shaped the very content and contours of the 9/11 Commission’s official narrative that was presented to the public. For Booth, such variations render memory as something often paradoxical in intent and impact, as both something “fragile and potent.” It can:

be the weak flame of the struggle to remember, or the stable, enduring habits acquired over the long duration of relationships. Its loss is greatly feared, yet often we seek the therapeutic power of forgetting. It has sustained a hidebound traditionalism in politics, but it has also been a weapon of liberation and a recognition of those who have been silenced or otherwise wronged. Memory has fueled merciless, violent strife, and it has been at the core of reconciliation of reconstruction. It has been used to justify great crimes, and yet it central to the pursuit of justice (Booth 2006, p. IX).

In reckoning with these connections between “memory-truth-justice”, Booth argues that these themes resonate powerfully in the present day to provide “guarding work” against intentional erasure. Such erasure, if enacted, results in two failures: the original removal of persons (and/or their stories) from existence and the removal of this removal from remembrance. A morals dimension of memory requires the recovery of the effacement of these victims—recovering them from the abyss of erasure. In such instances what is called for is “witnessing” beyond its legal form. Such witnessing makes “visible the truth about the absent…” (Booth 2006, pp. 128–130). In her conference keynote address, Göçek highlighted these challenges and the opportunities to overcome them. Despite the barriers she encountered around access to the official archival record as a conscious tactic by the state to maintain an historical fiction and societal amnesia, she drew upon broader historical evidences such as cemeteries, architecture, songs, and memoirs to document the Armenian genocide. Hence, while the formal archival record was controlled to promote official state history, the broader heritage landscape was not as easily manipulated or erased. The harnessing of broader evidences of the past, both documentary and non-documentary, beyond those created by formal state institutions is a theme reinforced by the contributions by both Hastings and Josias.
This notion of recognizing the uncomfortable past is reinforced by Blustein, who argues that the descendants of “victims of injustice” are:

entitled to have [their] own understanding of the past validated by society and properly reflected in the historical record. If social justice partly concerns the degree to which a society establishes and supports the institutional conditions necessary for the recognition of collective identities, then institutionalized public remembrance of past injustice is owed to the descendants as a matter of social justice (Blustein 2008, p. 164).

Blustein deploys a temporal distinction between events in the remote past versus events from the more recent past, with the latter demanding more direct association with, and action in, the present. Else we run the threat of trivialization and causing ongoing insult to the victims and their memorialization. And it is here that Blustein invokes the obligations of those who work within the “division of mnemonic memory” of which archivists must surely count themselves. Responsibility here is to help “tell the truth about what actually happened in the past.” While the notion of “truth” is easily problematized, it must be recognized as a feature of the past that is distinct from historical evasion and manipulative erasure of discomforting episodes (229). “Truth,” as used here as a frame for analyzing the politics of memory, is merely the recovery of that which happened but was consciously or subconsciously submerged and forgotten due to political or other power contingencies.

Similar to Blustein and Booth, Thompson (2002) argues that individuals, nations, and societies have intergenerational—or “diachronic”—moral responsibilities for reparations for historical injustices committed by their ancestors. She strongly critiques “synchronic” perspectives that “ignore the historical dimension of our social existence” in regard to justice and rights, claiming instead that it is entirely appropriate to focus on “transgenerational entitlements and obligations” as a framework for assessing the historical imperatives for reparative justice. Despite the reality that we cannot benefit or harm the dead in any real or meaningful manner, the challenge for the living remains how to evoke an ongoing diachronic non-obligatory/voluntary responsibility to the past derived from the “deeds of their predecessors or the consequences of these deeds.” Although she does not mention archives directly, she highlights the role that “intergenerational institutions,” which are compatible with the mission and trajectory of archival institutions, can play in this regard (Thompson 2002, pp. 148–153). And it is here that the ongoing responsibilities of archivists, and the bounding of those responsibilities when necessary, come to the fore and which are well articulated in the contributions of Valderhaug, Wheeler, and Harris.

Valderhaug reminds archivists that their actual responsibilities to both the past and to present users seeking historical redress or healing extend beyond what professional codes of ethics enumerate. He makes a convincing case that the shibboleth of equal rights of access can in fact limit our potential to enact social justice. In regard to the war children Valderhaug raises the notion of a legitimacy arising from offering “unequal and differential services” to those who are seeking historical redress but whose presence in the historical record is oblique. In these instances, the archivist should be animated not by the notion of equal access but rather the notion of “equal rights to benefit from the information in the archives….” Wheeler is likewise direct and iconoclastic on archival responsibilities. As opposed to merely provisioning historically controversial materials to users, he argues that archivists have an absolute responsibility to frame such materials “in a manner that provides the context for modern-day understanding and dialogue. [Archival work] must illuminate rather than obfuscate historical context.” He even suggests that archivists provide pathways to broader information that would help contextualize controversial materials and even participate in educational fora, such as online discussions, to promote deeper historical understanding. While such activism can be seen as overstepping the archival role of neutral presentation of the past, Wheeler makes the compelling case that neutrality can in some circumstances “be a very dangerous and irresponsible position to take.” Harris also offers direct commentary on archival responsibilities by advocating the perspective that always “the archivist is a memory activist either for or against” systems of oppression and that professional ethics are not effective when they keep “politics at bay” but rather when they strive to find a “just politics in action.” As a consequence he argues, in regard to the towering historical presence of Nelson Mandela, that we fail if we merely resort to remembering, memorializing, or monumentalizing Mandela. Instead, what the honoring of Mandela’s legacy requires is an engagement in ongoing “liberatory work” on contemporary issues that connect with Mandela’s political philosophy and life trajectory.

While archives can be loci to replicate the biases and erasures of the past, they can also be loci of quiet heresy whose unexamined contents can render new and more complete understandings of the past. Such has been recently demonstrated by the surfacing of archives by Susan Reverby at the University of Pittsburgh on the 1946–1948 intentional infecting by US doctors, one of whom played a prominent role on the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments (see Whorley 2002), of some 700 Guatemalans with venereal diseases in order to test the efficacy of penicillin. This exposure led to a formal apology from both US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (McNeil 2010; Walsh 2010). In another example, Douglas Blackmon’s (2008) mining of archives at the US National Archives and Records Administration and in state and local archives in Alabama and Georgia demonstrates that thousands of black Americans were legally “re-enslaved” for nearly 80 years after formal emancipation in the 1860s through arbitrary arrest and imposition of heavy fines which ensured their ongoing incarceration and leasing out to small town businesses and farms as well as major to corporations as uncompensated labor. Reverby’s and Blackmon’s revelations emanated out of archives that were hidden in plain sight in open collections. All that was needed was their discovery and deployment in new narrative building.

Despite the powerful arguments above on our obligations to the past, some observers remain less convinced that the past can be fruitfully harnessed to deal with historical injustices that continue to resonate in the present. Todorov’s (2010) analysis of the question on whether memory can serve as a remedy for “evil”—which he characterizes as a “catch-all term for various types of violence…[w]ar, genocide, massacres, torture, rape….”—by drawing on national legal reckonings within Nazi-Vichy France, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, apartheid South Africa, well evidences these doubts. The rise of “memorial laws” protecting against denials of past evil deeds demonstrates to Todorov that “appeals to memory as an effective cure against evil are not in short supply. The past is well preserved and commemorated. Yet if we shift our view to the present, there is no reason to conclude that evil is generally on the decline….” (Todorov 2010, pp. 6–7). In actuality, evil appears to have “survived intact from all the efforts to fight them with memory, and they continue today probably with even greater force. No sooner have they been stopped in one place than they start up in another, and one would be hard put to discern a collective moral progress in the march of humanity.” Hence, for Todorov, the “memory remedy seems to be ineffective” (Todorov 2010, pp. 7–8). In relating this theme to the global experiences of indigenous peoples who have been the target of much historical violence and erasure, Smith (1999) asks and answers the question:

Is history in its modernist construction important or not important for indigenous peoples?….We assume that when ‘the truth comes out’ it will prove that what happened was wrong or illegal and therefore the system (tribunals, the courts, the government) will set things right. We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. Wrong. History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that [indigenous peoples] have been excluded, marginalized and ‘Othered’. In this sense history in not important for indigenous peoples because a thousand accounts of the ‘truth’ will not alter the ‘fact’ that indigenous peoples are still marginal and do not possess the power to transform history into justice (p. 34, italics original).

Remembering alone, whether forced or willful, will not offer a path to rectifying past evils. It can no doubt play a part, but on a deeper level we need to harness memory to “ask ourselves about the reasons that gave rise to evil” and recognize that it is part of humanity and prospectively within each of us (Todorov 2010, pp. 80–83). Such realities have been powerfully noted by Lindqvist (1996) in a direct homage to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Everywhere in the world where knowledge is being suppressed, knowledge that, if it were made known, would shatter our image of the world and force us to question ourselves—everywhere there, Heart of Darkness is being enacted….It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions (p. 172, italics original).

The limitations of memory as a remedy for engaging past injustices and making them relevant to shifting contemporary norms and structures of power and domination are a sobering reminder that the perspective offered by the conference and in the essays that follow face an uphill battle, perhaps an impossible one. Yet, the depth and richness of the contributions to this issue also signal that there is much that is positive and inspiring to archival work that wishes to engage the connections between personal and professional ethics and the construction of memory as a mechanism to render a more just present. This is a global issue that demands that the profession work harder at making connections both pragmatically and intellectually on the substance of this challenge. The essays which follow offer some insights into what an ethics of memory construction can mean to archivists and that the present, and not just the representation of the past, needs archival advocacy and action.


In addition to myself, the main conference organizers were: Julie Herrada, Senior Associate Librarian and Curator of the Labadie Collection at the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan; and Anthea Josias, Fulbright Scholar and Ph.D. Candidate at the School of Information, University of Michigan. I wish to thank them both for their hard work and the inspiration to continue the spirit of the conference with this special issue. Sponsors who generously provided conference funding include The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and a range of University of Michigan entities: the School of Information; University Library; President’s Ethics in Public Life Initiative; International Institute; Dean’s Office of the Rackham Graduate School; and the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR). The author would also like to thank Beth Yakel for her support throughout the creation of this special issue.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011