The term archive(s) is today extremely fuzzy. If one considers its strict legislative meaning in France, archives are “the set of documents, whatever their date, their site of conservation, their form, and their format, produced or received by any physical or legal person and by any service or public body in their exercise of their activity” (French law of July 15, 2008). But the term also has a conceptual usage, in the singular, which has been employed since the 1960s (initially by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida), not counting the meaning it takes on in the world of preservation, among archivists with their regal state powers, and for various users (historians but also artists, writers, genealogists, etc.).
The confusion is all the more total as, beneath the word archive(s), one now understands an entire set of documents that are no longer limited to a paper format (photographs, films, sound recordings, digital registrations, etc.) or to a restricted list of producers (with a well-known increase in the place accorded to private archives, even if, on the strictly quantitative level, archives still overwhelmingly issue from public actions). And so, archives—which, thirty years ago, were still confused with the places in which they are preserved and with their treatment by archivists (the storage facilities of the French National Archives or the various French Departmental Archives)—have now invaded the public space. Everyone claims to have “archives.” Everyone has his “archive” on his desktop computer, for example. We are therefore witnessing both a dispersion of archives and their fragmentation. It seems to us that problematizing the notion of archive(s) around the issue of objects will allow one to see things more clearly.
It may be asked to what extent this phenomenon connected with other events we shall examine in succession, particularly some artistic practices, does not challenge an order of things established during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which can be designated by the term remains. In this management of what is deliberately preserved of the past and for which one invents special devices and arrangements, the sites themselves serve to distinguish the items in question, as historians (Krzysztof Pomian, Dominique Poulot) have shown very well. Schematically speaking, it thus may be thought that in museums, one preserves objects (pictures, sculptures, and “ethnographic” objects); in libraries, books; in archives, documents (maps and texts); in cemeteries, corpses. As for what has left no remains—events—one leaves plaques and monuments. Of course, other memory storage practices exist, but let us grant that this division is the most common in our European societies and that these distinctions have been inscribed in the city itself, within different institutions that do not pertain to the same professions, though all pertain to preservation. So, we have the museum, the library, archives, and the cemetery. Undoubtedly, the example of the Vatican is the most interesting from this standpoint, since such separation can be seen clearly over a quite small surface area: the Vatican Museums, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum and the Vatican Library in the same courtyard, though each has a distinct point of entry, and, finally, St. Peter’s Basilica with its relics of saints.
This silent division of our remains, which distinguishes, on the one hand, objects and, on the other, a series of items, has produced devices and arrangements specific to each field, thus generating its own practices. Museum objects are exhibited and are to be contemplated, books are handled, while one visits the dead and touches relics “with one’s gaze.” As for archives, they are preserved. Although, as Yann Potin has notably shown, they sometimes were in the early nineteenth century exhibited in a gallery, as in the Hôtel de Soubise at the French National Archives in Paris, access to them is forbidden, and yet sometimes they may become the object of some publication.
This representation has long endured in people’s minds, even as historians, but also genealogists, have entered the Archives. Yet, the fact that they are the only kind of remains for which a waiting period has been established before they can be examined has undoubtedly reinforced and sustained the equation “archives = secret,” which tends to dematerialize archives even a bit further, whereas for archivists, archives do indeed have a materiality, in the form of DIMAB-brand cardboard storage boxes. Undoubtedly, Éditions du Seuil’s publication of Arlette Farge’s Goût de l’archive in 1989 has in part accentuated this idea of secrecy. The ascension of bundles from the storeroom—that is, from darkness to light—and the impossibility of having a full visual grasp of an entire collection, as well as the fragmentary character thereof, have contributed to this sort of sacralization, which makes of archives precious traces lying somewhere between valued objects and sacred remains.
Since the mid-1990s—though not because of the development of digitalization, which renders archives reproducible—we are witnessing a blurring of this great division and the creation of a new status for archives: once “traces,” they have become social “objects.”
The context for this change may fittingly be called the right of remembrance, which has emerged on a massive scale the past few years. In this memorial moment, each community demands the construction of a singular memory based on exhibitable archives. Two examples may be mentioned here: the case of the “Jewish file” (see Sonia Combe’s study), now exhibited at Paris’s Mémorial de la Shoah, and the archives from slaveholders’ plantations in the Antilles that are exhibited in the glass cases of the room devoted to the slave trade at the Nantes History Museum. Those archives, though pertaining to the powerful, become an object our contemporaries have appropriated for themselves.
Research work on archives, particularly work on the private archives of writers (particularly by researchers in textual genetics, examining successive versions of manuscripts), but also research into cultural history and labor history (on bureaucracy) has also fostered a materialist approach to archives. The medium, and the materiality of the inscription (implements), are studied in order to inquire into the social history of writing.
On Archives or the Use of Archives in Contemporary Works of Art
A third factor has undoubtedly played a role in the construction of archives as an object. It results from a third usage, which has tended to develop in the last decade and a half: the gestures of contemporary artists and the manner in which some of these artists have used “archives” in their works. One can mention, of course, the work of Christian Boltanski, or that of the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. The latter, indeed, plays with archives in his monuments devoted to major European intellectual figures. For 24h Foucault, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the philosopher’s death in 2004, he conceived an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo that presented blank archives (the letterhead of Michel Foucault, a professor at the Collège de France), while allowing each person to use photocopy machines or CDs to copy archival material. But it is also fitting to recall certain gestures of exhibition curators. For example, Nathalie Léger and Marianne Alphant, who, during the 2003 Barthes exhibition at the Georges Pompidou Center, decided to exhibit the file of the author of Mythologies in the form of a huge stele, thereby giving material form to the work of indexation while aestheticizing it. With Habiter poétiquement le monde at the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (LAM) in Villeneuve d’Asque, François Piron exhibited in one and the same show writers’ manuscripts and their archives, outsider art works and works by contemporary artists. In a quite different way, with La planète des signes, Guillaume Desanges, in a series of exhibitions at the Plateau (Île-de-France Fonds régional d’art contemporain [FRAC]), transformed the archives of a militant action group (the anti-AIDS organization Act Up-Paris) into an artwork. He thereby produced a reverse effect; by transforming the archives into an object, he sacralized them.
These three events, of differing natures, undoubtedly have helped to restore a quasi-physical material form to archives. Also, in the construction of new archival centers, as studied by Christian Hottin, exhibition rooms are planned. National heritage curators are now expected to foster a broader opening of archival collections to the public. Conversely, preservation centers are gathering major collections of private archives, for example for the commemoration of World War I. Moreover, from our perspective here it is significant that archivists are digitalizing archives, thus leaving to the descendants of French WWI soldiers [des poilus] an archive-object. Here, one may ask to what extent this construction of archives in the form of objects is not resacralizing traces of the past, making them into genuine relics.
BOULANGER, Christophe, Savine Faupin, and François Piron. Eds. Habiter poétiquement le monde. Lille: LAM, 2010.
COEURÉ, Sophie, and Vincent Duclert. Les Archives. Paris: La Découverte, 2011.
COMBE, Sonia. “Les fichiers de juifs. De la désinformation à la désillusion.” Lignes, 23 (1994): 91-126.
HOTTIN, Christian. Des hommes, des lieux, des archives: pour une autre pratique de l’archivistique. Les carnets du Lahic 4. Lahic/Mission à l’ethnologie, 2009.
KIHM, Christophe. “Ce que l’art fait à l’archive.” Critique, 759-760 (2010): 707-18.
POMIAN, Krzysztof. Des saintes reliques à l’art moderne. Venise-Chicago, XIIIe-XXe siècles. Paris: Gallimard, 2003.
POTIN, Yann. “Les archives et la matérialité différée du pouvoir. Titres, écrins ou substituts de la souveraineté?” Pouvoirs, 153 (2015): p. 5-21.
_____. “Archive(s).” In Dictionnaire de l’historien. Claude Gauvard and Jean-François Sirinelli, Eds. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2015. Pp. 27-31.
POULOT, Dominique. Une histoire des musées de France, XVIIIe-XXe siècles. Paris: La Découverte, 2005.