Trinidad Woman

Archival Truth and Memory

Reflections on the Archive by Dr. Anne Murphy

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1.0 Archives have become very "sexy" in the cultural world over the last two decades. Why do you think that is? Assuming we can even agree on what an archive is, why have they entered the centre of the art world of late?

It seems to me a preoccupation with the archive mirrors a broad global preoccupation with memory itself: this is something Andreas Huyssen observed in his very valuable book Present Pasts (2003). We live within a world that is both obsessed with the past, but also in some sense numbed to it, a strange combination of presentism and past-centrism that does seem quite distinct both from the forward-looking period of high-modernism and the concern for "tradition" that appeared in its wake. As Huyssen also notes in that work this preoccupation with memory is linked to tangible social justice projects such as the drive to remember mass and/or state violence in various locations around the world—Punjab, India; South Africa; Argentina; Germany. So, there are important politic projects attached to it. At the same time, as we have seen with remarkable and depressing frequency recently, there is a strong drive in our culture to forget, to falsify, and to pretend: it does not seem to matter what actually happened, and instead all that matters is what one might imagine to have happened, to fit the needs of the present. That move away from archival truth and into the past-as-fantasy is something I hope we all remain attentive to. It is dangerous—and it undermines all the political projects mentioned above, which rely upon a notion of truth to combat the amnesia enacted by powerful interests.

Sikh Police with Criminals

2.0 In your practice/projects, give an example, or two, of how you have engaged the archive?

I rely for my historical research on archives in India and Pakistan, which preserve historical documents that provide access to the historical past. The Punjab State Archives in Patiala and Chandigarh, the National Archives of India, the India Office Library collection in the British Library - these are the archives that I have explored for my own historical work.

I have also worked to build an archive, through the blog I maintain at UBC, through two inter-connected programs. One is driven by student research: students in various UBC classes (most recently, ASIA 475, "Documenting Punjabi Canada") engage in oral history interviews and develop short video projects based on these interviews. The other project is my own ongoing research project, through which I am documenting Punjabi language cultural production and advocacy, through interviews with writers and activists in India, Pakistan, and beyond. This serves my own research interests, but I hope also will contribute to the documentation and dissemination of information about Punjabi language and cultural production, providing a valuable archive for the future.


“The diversity and dynamism of the South Asian Canadian community is one of its greatest strengths.”

3.0 In dealing with archives, what are two or three key things which you have learnt?

Preservation and access are crucial. Without preservation—the effort to collect material (of all different kinds) and then preserve what is collected—we have nothing, no ability to know our past in the present and future, and nothing to give future generations. Equally crucial is access: that such materials be made available at no cost and freely to all. Materials must not be available only to some, but not all; otherwise, archives promote bias and exclusion. If we want to respect and honour the past in all its diversity, preservation and access are key.


4.0 With respect to South Asian archives, what is you sense of the interface between community-based archives and academic archives? What are the challenges in creating bridges between both?

Both are important. ALL archives are important. Having different kinds of archives gives the opportunity to have diversity of mandate, collecting practices, and intent. That means a greater diversity of material collected, enhancing the diversity of materials preserved and made available. Ideally, I believe we should ultimately rely on academic archives, because they are well designed to provide free and open access. But that doesn't mean only academic archives matter. If community archives can feed into academic archives, then synergies can be created between them. Community archives can work with academic archives to provide access--that crucial access, without which archives cannot do their job of preserving the past and making it available—while also maintaining independent collecting practices. Community-oriented and community-run access programs can then be built into these academic archives, to provide multi-dimensional access, interpretation, and diversity of perspectives. The goal, ultimately, must always be diversity and breadth, not the creation of one single vision or one single access point.

5.0 If there was one (or two things) you could say about where energy and funding needs to be focussed over the next 5-10 years in South Asian archives (within the geographies in which you are engaged: Canada and USA), what would they be?

Diversity of perspective and mandate should be favoured over a one-size-fits-all solution. A distributed archival approach allows different sites, community groups, scholars, institutions to be involved. That's key. It seems to me that the diversity and dynamism of the South Asian Canadian community is one of its greatest strengths, so the most important thing is to mobilize that in the production of a way to preserve, provide access to, and tell its history.

Dr. Anne Murphy

Dr. Anne Murphy is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia and, from 2017-2020, co-Director of the Centre for India and South Asia Research in the Institute of Asian Research. Dr. Murphy’s research interests focus on early modern and modern cultural representation in Punjab and within the Punjabi Diaspora, as well as more broadly in South Asia, with particular attention to the historical formation of religious communities and special but not exclusive attention to the Sikh tradition. View bio.


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