by Arabeth Balasko

SAA 2020: Creating Our Future offered a wide array of sessions and stories featuring archivists from all walks of life sharing their talents, collective experiences, and applicable steps they have undertaken to foster an inclusive and diversified archival future.  A future that advocates and represents all voices, a future which encourages archivists to think in new ways regarding accessibility, inclusivity, and collaborations.

One session that I found extremely inspiring and followed the model of future-forward archival thinking with current archival applicable action was “Reframing History: Opening Up Archives to Artists.”  This panel was chaired by Tempestt Hazel, Co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center, moderated by Jennifer Patiño Cervantes, Manager of Archives and Operations at Sixty Inches From Center and Kate Hadley Toftness, Director of Chicago Archives and Artists Project (CA+AP) at Sixty Inches From Center. The speakers were Catherine Grandgeorge, Manuscript and Archives Librarian, Newberry Library, CA+AP Partner; Analú María López, Ayer Indigenous Studies Librarian, Newberry Library; and Ivan LOZANO, Artist, and H. Melt, Artist + Poet. The varied backgrounds and individual stories of all the session participants were unified in such a way that each story and experience shined on its own, yet were intricately woven together to form a cohesive approach towards collective archival change. 

The following ideas were presented during the panel session and particularly stood out to me as an archivist who is continually striving to make collections and archival spaces available, accessible, and welcoming to all users:

  • Increase representation of artists from marginalized communities
  • Work to create fellowships, partnership (that are funded!) with artists and archives. Bring marginalized communities to the archival forefront.
  • Support artists’ voices and the artistic process/exploration as they work to reframe and reinterpret the “traditional” narrative. Pledge to provide a safe space and supportive system for this work, allowing for the exploration, openness and recognition of traumas associated with past (and sometimes current) collection practices, and challenging topics which will arise during the exploration process.
  • Work to recognize and reframe “whiteness/white supremacy” laced throughout the archives filed 🡪 #ArchivesSoWhite
  • How current archival structurestraditionally centered around a white, cisgender narrativelack of complex knowledge and lack of centering around folks of color, LGTBQ+
  • Creating narratives about folks who were not involved in the creation process, creating a community construct without being asked 
  • Outdated and offensive language, identifiers, and stereotypes are prevalent in archival metadata, finding aids, and structures. How can this be acknowledged and updated with inclusive partnerships of marginalized folks? Crowd-sourcing metadata can play a role.  
  • “Don’t assume you know the best type of artists to work in/with your collection” – H. Melt, Artist + Poet. Stay open to working with a variety of artistic folks.
  • Think about ways you can reach new folks at your archive. How are you being welcoming to all users? Does your archival repository feel “intimidating?” “Unwelcoming?” “Not a place for all people wanting to see/access the collections?” If it feels like that, how can you implement positive and proactive changes?
  • Make this work known in the archive’s world. Publish the stories about the artists working with your collections, tell the stories, help amplify the voices. Realize that this is important work and needs to be shared with the archival community and beyond.

One significant takeaway I experienced from this session was the affirmation that by inviting, welcoming, supporting, and fostering “non-traditional archival users,” (i.e. artists) to access collections, archivists can truly create meaningful partnerships with traditionally marginalized and underrepresented folks and community groups. These partnerships can then work to bridge the gaps in archival collecting and start to heal and rebuild relationships between the past and the present.  

It was truly refreshing to see representation from a plethora of folks advocating for foundational archival change.  From Trans awareness advocacy and the refusal to accept erasure from the narrative, to actively including oneself into an archive that has traditionally excluded collecting diverse experiences and voices. From crowd-sourcing metadata from marginalized folks, to creating the much needed hashtag #ArchivesSoWhite, these real-time actions by the panel participants challenged the “traditional practices” of archival collecting.  

This session highlighted to me that archival institutions can change. Voices, actions, and a refusal to be silently complicit, can bring about impactful changes that have been well overdue in our profession. Change IS possible, it just takes some dedicated souls who are open to “reframing history.”  

Excited about this session? You can still view a recording here.

Arabeth Balasko (she/her), Photograph Archivist at the Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum, is an archivist and historian dedicated to public service and proactive stewardship. As a professional archivist, her overarching goals are to curate collections that follow a shared standardization practice, are user-centric, and are searchable and accessible to all via physical and digital platforms.

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