Tuesday, April 1, 2008

preserving context and practicality

One of the concepts that confused me––or that I at least found to be problematic––in most of these readings––but particularly “Participatory… Multicultural Archival Collections” was the discussion of context and accessibility. Shilton and Srinivasan, Ernst, and Gitelman all pointed out that context preserves documents as articles with evidential value (and, Gitelman suggests, is actually what defines a document).

I understand this concept, particularly in reference to Baudrillard’s argument about the mummy in the museum (which seemed to suggest that removed from context, objects and artifacts are no longer real, but rather simulacra, because they have been removed from their cultural/social context and placed in our history, etc etc). And I agree with this idea, which also seemed to be the premise of Shilton and Srinivasan’s article and their main concern. However, this presents problems for the accessibility of that information.

To not remove something from its context by leaving marginalized community’s records in the order they had them originally is all well and good. But if these records are to really teach a lot of people and be widely accessed, it seems that they must eventually part with their original context. On page 7, S&S write that there are different cultural conceptions of records all over the world, and one such conception is a performance. I love performances as much as the next person, but performances and oral traditions will only last so long in the modern world (consider what Appadurai wrote concerning the difficulty of maintaining generational continuity today). It would seem to me that to preserve these performance-records, they would have to be filmed, which would pretty quickly take them out of their original context.

(warning, this may be misinterpretation: The thing is, some cultures do not preserve well––we know nothing about cultures who’s writings did not somehow persist. So whether or not it is traditional is some culture to write in sand, as far as archiving goes, that just isn’t going to work, just as most people can agree that traditions aside, slavery is a bad idea. Then you have to suggest that perhaps archiving is not within the context of whatever culture. Does that mean that it isn’t worth sending a western anthropologist to take notes?)

And then to be widely accessible, they would really have to be taken out of their original contexts. I was truly surprised when S & S brought up digital archives the first time, then surprised again when, seemingly out of the blue, they finished their description of their South Asian project by saying that it would be online and alterable by future generations of South Asians, as though South Asians who know how to use the internet are still going to fully understand their ancestor’s methods of organization and link-making, just because they’re from the same area.
I have this feeling that I’m missing an important point, and I’d very much like to discuss this disconnect between functionality and accuracy further in section.

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