Performing Archive

Introduction: Archiving Culture

David J. Kim, UCLA

The task of recording the descriptive material embodied in these volumes, and of preparing the photographs which accompany them, had its inception in 1898.  Since that time, during each year, months of arduous labor have been spent in accumulating the data necessary to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions.  The great changes in practically every phase of the Indian's life that have taken place, especially within recent years, have been such that had the time for collecting much of the material, both descriptive and illustrative, herein recorded, been delayed, it would have been lost forever....

The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time. It is this need that has inspired the present task.
--Edward S. Curtis, in the “General Introduction” to The North American Indian, xvi - xvii, (emphasis added)1

How does one make a “record” of a culture? Does the archive constitute naturally existing, inherently valuable traces of history, or does it require a certain self-conscious intervention to document and preserve, as Edward Curtis articulates here in the opening paragraphs of The North American Indian?  In other words, how does one "archive" a culture, as well as what was the "archiving culture" in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.  More often than not, working with archives on any given topic and of various forms does not guarantee insights into the motivation behind nor the intended meaning of the collected materials. Those that diligently rummage through records, documents, moving and still images, sounds and artifacts—in a room full of boxes or through one’s computer screen—can arrive at a certain interpretation of the "authorial intent," or in this case, "the collector’s intent," but this task is no longer in the realm of evidence, the archive’s primary function and value in the scholarly production of knowledge.  For the professional archivists trained in the modern science of ordering and preserving the archive, this elusive nature of intent and meaning is the reason for the core principle known as the “respect des fonds,” which relies on provenance and “original order” for the context and the arrangement of materials.2 It is more than for the sake of convenience, as many archivists would attest to the difficulty of establishing proper order of a collection, but rather such a principle underwrites the professional ethics for archivists not as interpreters but as the “stewards” of history, adhering to a set of standards of objectivity, neutrality and the science of knowledge, however impossible such aspirations may be.3

The arrival of everything digital in the ways we discover, produce, circulate and consume various traces of the past has certainly increased the accessibility and perhaps even the scalability of archived and "archivable" knowledge, but the critical challenge of meaning remains.  Many in the field of digital history have begun to consider the epistemological possibilities of having access to seemingly infinite quantity of historical records and data, while others have discussed the consequences of the digital's "economy of abundance" for generating scholarship.  There have been many discussions in the digital humanities about the archives and the opportunity to include heretofore forgotten or underrepresented voices, as well as the urgency of archival awareness with which we need to preserve recent pasts and also the contemporary.4 All of these efforts, including this current project, explore the digital possibilities for the archive as well as the changing conditions for the archival mode of knowing. The current (digital) "archive fever" is an opportunity not only to augment the archive but also to question the very terms by which the archive has historically established its particular epistemological authority as evidence.

Performing Archive is, in part, a small effort towards both unpacking the layers of authority embedded in this widely circulated visual and ethnographical documentation of Native Americans. Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian is a particularly interesting material that brings our attention to, among other things, this intersection of the modern archive as science and its longstanding relationship to technologies of inscription and mediation.  It is also an archive that reveals how these technologies of capture, in this case the photography, have been used to establish a particular "documentary gaze" on gendered and racialized bodies in the U.S..  For the undergraduate audience that we have in mind, one possible starting point for this discussion of the convergence of documentation, technology and race and national identity in the U.S. archiving culture is to unveil the constructedness of these categories against their various determinisms.  This basic reorientation is what this section of Performing Archive hopes to demonstrate through the following “network representations” of Curtis’ images as well as of his social connections that provide further context of the condition of the images’ production and circulation. As an experiment, the curiosity that has guided our nascent engagement with data visualizations is: what does digital scholarship stand to gain from 'data-ization' of culture and what does it lose?  It is a methodological consideration in regards to empiricism, authenticity and objectivity that is directed at both Curtis' work and our current exploration with remixing the digital surrogates of his archive.  

1.  Full text available here:
2.  For definition, see
3.  See “Responsible Custody” section of the Core Values of Archivists by Society of American Archivists (SAA):
4.  For archival discussions in the field of digital history, see Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web (2005) ; For generating knowledge in the "economy of abundance," see Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (2011); on digital preservation, see Matthew Kirschenbaum's plenary lecture at the 2011  Digital Humanities Summer Institute;  

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