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  • Writer's pictureMUSEUM STUDIES

The Influence of Social Justice and Community Archives on the Archive Sector

Catherine Banks, MA (Museum and Heritage Studies) student

This article has been adapted from an essay written in partial fulfilment of the assessment requirements for the Museum and Heritage Studies Internship Capstone unit (MHST6905), following completion of a placement undertaken at the Australian Jewish Historical Society.

There has been a significant shift in the museum and heritage sector over the last few decades towards more inclusive and community focused practices. Among the most public examples of this have been the calls for the ‘decolonisation’ of museums, particularly the high-profile repatriation of stolen objects, and the expectation for public institutions to participate in issues of social activism, such as climate change, by condemning unethical corporate partners. Such developments have been triggered by a growing criticism within public and academic spheres of the power and authority of established heritage and cultural institutions. In 1999, cultural theorist Stuart Hall described this conceptual shift within intellectual culture as,

A growing reflexivity about the constructed and thus contestable nature of the authority which some people acquire to 'write the culture' of others; a decline in the acceptance of the traditional authorities in authenticating the interpretative and analytic frameworks which classify, place, compare and evaluate culture, and the concomitant rise in the demand to re-appropriate control over “the writing of one’s story” as part of a wider process of cultural liberation. [1]

This challenge to the authority and integrity of heritage institutions has been directed as well at archival institutions, yet its impact has materialised differently here. What has been referred to as the ‘archival turn’ can be described as ‘a general re-thinking and re-visioning of what archives are, who can be an archivist, the purposes archives serve, the character and boundaries of their contents, how these should be investigated.’ [2] This period of reflection and re-examination has highlighted several key issues within established archival practice and led to meaningful changes in the sector.

New South Wales Jewish War Memorial Community Centre. Photo: Catherine Banks.

Although the original purpose of public archives was to preserve the records of government agencies for the scholarly elite, since the 1970s the paradigm of ‘postmodern archiving’, theorised most notably by Terry Cook, has become the dominant approach taken by official archival institutions. [3] Under this approach, the archive is understood to be a societal resource with a duty to serve the public by representing their history and reflecting a multitude of identities. This move towards societal engagement has been motivated by a rise in public awareness of the role that archival institutions have played in reinforcing state power, for example as a means to dispossess and disempower indigenous communities and in turn bolster imperial power. Similarly, many scholars have criticised that the exclusion of certain groups from archival collections has been used as a tool of state control. This recognition that archives are political entities that have been shaped by state interests is significant because, as Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd have argued,

The archives that are “chosen” for survival, the terms in which they are described, and the processes by which these decisions are made, do ultimately impact on the collective memory and public histories that are produced from them. [4]

This influence of archives on collective memory and public histories has had many real-world consequences, particularly for oppressed or marginalised groups. For example, in South Africa, the state archives were censored during the apartheid regime to cover up and justify government actions. Now, however, these archives are an important part of social justice work, as Verne Harris has argued: ‘The work of archive is justice. And justice is unimaginable without archive.’ [5]

A core principle of the archival profession, which archivists have previously claimed prevented their involvement in matters of social justice, has historically been that archivists must possess a professional neutrality and resist ‘politicisation’. The International Council on Archives’ Code of Ethics, established in 1996, states: 'The objectivity and impartiality of archivists is the measure of their professionalism. They should resist pressure from any source to manipulate evidence so as to conceal or distort facts.' This position reflects a prior widespread lack of acknowledgment in the archival profession of the significant role that archivists play in selecting, interpreting, and preserving archival material. Examinations of empirical archives and their ‘unnatural silences’, however, have shown that archivists have never truly been ‘neutral’. As archivist Rodney G.S. Carter has argued,

Archivists must be willing to accept their roles as political players and acknowledge that they cannot be impartial custodians. They must confront and challenge the oppression that is evidenced in the records if they are not to become complicit with the continued marginalization. [6]

The questioning of the integrity of archival institutions combined with a decline in public acceptance of their authority has caused archives to undergo changes and reform their practices to earn back public trust. Archives are at a unique point where neutrality is no longer an acceptable justification for not participating in issues of social justice, and their history of actively supporting state power has been openly criticised. There has developed an impetus for archivists to act in society’s interest, rather than those of the elite, which has begun to change how they work.

Australian Jewish Historical Society Archives. Photo: Catherine Banks.

Yet this transformation in official archival institutions has been slow and fragmentary, inspiring a rise in the formation of community archives. These are most often formed by independent grassroot movements seeking to address the limitations of official archives by documenting and preserving the experiences of excluded or misrepresented groups. A distrust towards official archives has led communities to seek to ‘write their own story’ as a form of cultural liberation, and to exert control over the representations of their identities. Not coincidentally, these communities are often groups that have been suppressed, oppressed, or criminalised by society. For example, feminist, black, Indigenous, queer, Jewish, and working-class focused archives are common. The heritage contained in archives is important not just for creating and maintaining a sense of identity and culture but also for creating social and political change for these communities in the present. In 1982, for example, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives’ statement of purpose claimed that, ‘A conspiracy of silence has robbed gay men and lesbians of their history. A sense of continuity which derives from the knowledge of a heritage is essential for the building of self-confidence in a community. It is a necessary tool in the struggle for social change.' [7]

While community archives are not always created with an explicit political intent, they are almost always concerned with community empowerment and social progress in the present. As Simon Popple, Daniel H. Mutibwa and Andrew Prescott have argued, ‘It is this social activism and community self-organisation that is the distinguishing feature of the community archive.' [8] In this way, we can see the link between the rise of community archives and the movement towards social justice in the museum and heritage sector more broadly. The practices of community archives challenge the norms of official archives and raise questions about the possibilities for the function of archives going forward. The transition in the heritage sector towards community accountability and participation in social justice movements has led to a unique moment where state archives are currently more open to adopting community archival practices than ever before.

  1. Stuart Hall, 'Whose Heritage? Un-settling "The Heritage", Re-imagining the Post-nation” Third Text 13, no. 49 (1999): 8.

  2. Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley & Maria Tamboukou, The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences (London: Routledge, 2017), 2.

  3. Terry Cook, 'Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms,' Archival Science 13, no. 2-3 (2013): 95.

  4. Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens & Elizabeth Shepherd, 'Whose Memories, Whose Archives? Independent Community Archives, Autonomy and the Mainstream,' Archival Science 9, no. 1-2 (2009): 76.

  5. Verne Harris, 'Passion for Archive,' Archives and Manuscripts 46, no. 2 (2018): 197.

  6. Rodney G.S. Carter, 'Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence,' Archivaria 61 (2006): 231.

  7. Ibid, 232.

  8. Simon Popple, Andrew Prescott & Daniel H. Mutibwa, Communities, Archives and New Collaborative Practices (Bristol: Policy Press, 2020), 5.


Catherine Banks is a postgraduate student in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Sydney. She was awarded First Class Honours for a Batchelor of Arts (Honours) in History in 2021. Her Honours thesis explored the institutionalisation of Holocaust memory within the museum and heritage sector in the United Kingdom and drew a comparison with the representations of Holocaust memory within Australia. Her research centres on public memory in the twentieth century and its influence on museum and heritage practices. She recently completed an internship with the Australian Jewish Historical Society Archives.

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