Reflecting on Designing the Archive ASA-ICA 2019 conference

After lunch on day two of this conference, I was going to the session delivered by the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC). I noticed on my way past another room, that the screen in there had questions about provenance that the participants in that session were to consider. They caught my attention because Collection Management staff at AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) have been making small steps towards displaying all the systems of knowledge that underpin a collection.

(Where, for instance, provenance has been attributed singly to the depositor of the collection, or the field worker conducting research, eg MS 5021 Tasaku Tsunoda, all contributors are acknowledged as the creators, eg Language collections deposited … J Gavan Breen. Further, the Audio Visual team are engaged in a re-attribution project, working with Roy Barker to identify his grandfather, Jimmie Barker’s work in collections historically attributed to Janet Mathews; see the Alice Moyle lecture at the 2019 ASRA conference.)

I went to the KALACC session room, saw that at least two other AIATSIS staff were there, thought, “AIATSIS has got this covered without me”, and went back to the one about provenance. I sat down at a table that had an empty seat … and realised that I’d inserted myself into a session intended for the International Council on Archives Forum of National Archivists. That’s a funny story that I won’t expand. I stayed because the topic was interesting and relevant.

The discussion was about whether archival practice and systems in each country could adequately encompass multiple simultaneous provenances; territorial provenance; societal provenance; parallel provenance (as explicated by Hurley) and no provenance (as explicated by Jarrett Drake).

I disagreed with the notion that parallel provenance needs to be ‘resolved’ (the facilitator’s word) into identification of multiple simultaneous provenances. Both multiple simultaneous provenance and parallel provenance are constructions of Western archival thought. Implicit in ‘multiple simultaneous provenances’ is the idea that all provenances can be contained within a single originating framework (such as successive government departments). Chris Hurley argues that parallel provenance is unresolved provenance, ie the provenance of a record simply hasn’t been accurately identified yet. For me, it contains the potential for multiple enduring provenances, that co-exist in the one collection and not only don’t need to be resolved, but shouldn’t be, because to resolve them is to eliminate (the facilitator’s word again) one of the originating systems from view.

Any one of the many linguists’ collections in the AIATSIS archive is an example of the way I have been thinking about parallel provenance: Underpinning the records of the linguist’s fieldwork, and the contribution of the speakers are the linguist’s academic training; and the speakers’ culture. Both are discrete systems of knowledge that have interacted to create the records in the collection. Both, to different degrees, rely on each other: the linguist for data; the speakers, in a situation of colonisation, for language preservation, maintenance and reclamation. Both will endure independently of each other. To ‘resolve’ that dynamic into a single originating framework seems to me bizarre. I realise that multiple simultaneous provenances can potentially incorporate different provenances, but the idea of ‘resolution’ into one provenance bothers me because I hear extinction in it. Things that are parallel never meet, although there are useful outcomes to running in parallel. The culture of the speakers evident in a linguist’s collection continues (whether visible or not), separately to the collection, and there’s no problem to be resolved in that parallel situation.

I didn’t argue the point in that forum. I concluded that I need to do more reading to see whether there is any basis for my unease; or whether I am too wedded to my notion of parallel provenance.

I also didn’t argue the point because I started thinking about something else: the dual nature of the items in, for example, a language collection: A linguist, or a non-Indigenous person, will look at the records in such a collection, and at our description of them, and see grammar and syntax and glosses and linguistic paradigms – the products of the Western discipline of linguistics, the linguist’s training and intellectual effort. A member of the speaker’s community might look at those same items and see snippets of the story the speaker was telling while the linguist was recording. The story might have related family history, colonisation in the area, or traditional knowledge. Both – grammar, syntax, linguistic paradigms, etc and the family history, colonisation, traditional knowledge – inhere in the content of the one item, or items or whole collection. It’s not a matter of perspective, revealing a different aspect. A speaker won’t (or may not at first sight) see a linguistic analysis; a linguist won’t (or may not at first sight) see a history of black and white relations. The same item will embody something fundamentally different for each of them.

I heard David Moore, a Central Australian linguist, talk once about the verb conjugations in Alyawarre, which place the speaker in space or place as well as time – whether the sun was behind them or in front of them, whether they were elevated in the landscape (eg on a hill) or level with the plain. A non-Indigenous linguist might remark on that beautiful complexity of tenses and what can be inferred about the speaker’s world view from that. (A non-Indigenous non-linguist might just go, “Wow”.) A member of the speaker’s community might be reminded of the complex of relations to country or the meaning or instruction being imparted by the speaker’s location in the landscape (I am just surmising here).

Two years ago I heard Glen Auricht recount his retracing of the route taken by Carl Strehlow and senior Arrernte men from Hermannsburg mission to Horseshoe Bend in 1922, where Strehlow died. Decades later, Auricht went to Hermannsburg as a Lutheran worker, maintaining the mission property; in the eleven years he was there, he was accepted by the senior men and went through the law. Auricht used images along the route in his presentation about his ‘Journey to Horseshoe Bend’, also undertaken with senior man. Depending on what he was describing in the image, and which system of knowledge he was drawing on, Auricht’s presence or embodiment changed. Same man, same demeanour even, but he was undeniably shape-shifting. It was an uncanny thing to watch.

So (back at the conference) in addition deciding it was strategic not to debate the heads of the various national archives at my table, I started to wonder whether I was thinking about provenance at all, or some other descriptive problem. Do we have the tools or the consciousness to describe shape-shifting collections?