Impressions about Migrations from an Archival Perspective

Impression of borders: Drava River near the village of Botovo, Croatia-Hungary state border, August 2019

Why should we care?

Talking about the social responsibility of cultural heritage institutions in general seems to have attracted more attention of late, and with good reason. Cultural heritage professionals tend to overlook the social importance of their work too easily, and archives devote too much effort exclusively to the heritage aspect of their mission.

We should care about documenting the history of migration because being socially responsible is part of our professional ethics. We should care because what we choose to archive can make a difference, be it for someone who searches for their family history, someone who tries to claim their civil rights by using historical records, or for someone conducting a scholarly research. We should care because we can help the communities and individuals who are studying their past now, and we could help them in the future – if our professional practices recognize the need for such action.

Why are archives and migration strongly related topics?

This introductory blog entry about the Archives and Traces of Migration project broaches and expounds ICARUS Croatia’s internal motivation to engage in discussion about migration, a topic that is by nature dynamic and, one might feel, in contrast with the static nature of archives and archival policies. The idea was to investigate migration from the perspective of how it is reflected in historical records, as well as to investigate archival policies and practices regarding this globally important social phenomenon. Archives document migration, most of them not actively, but, nonetheless, their holdings allow for the history of migration to be reconstructed and written about it, based on the facts contained in documents. As to how archives treat such documentation, that is an open question, one certainly worth looking into.

Impression of borders: Gevgelija train station, Republic of North Macedonia, April 2018

We often perceive archives only as places of the past, as institutions that keep someone’s written heritage and important records. But, at the same time, archives are places that shape the future, for what is written and recorded now will make a difference later. Some people and some communities will be able to claim their rights through historical records, some will not. It will be possible to write some books, but not all. We should care because the decisions we make now will affect future possibilities.

Connecting the history of various communities with the cultural narrative of one’s homeland and host land through archival records is an amazing opportunity for any society. We should care because we preserve and hold these records as a means of connection.

Enabling the use of archival records for the purposes of a person exercising their rights is one of the central values of archival work, regardless of the type of archive. Archival records, as well as archives themselves, have the potential to help people. We should care because our practices can help hold people accountable for their actions and provide ample evidence.

What challenges are archivists faced with?

The first challenge we have detected is that many archives are often unfit to deal with any other agenda aside from the one preassigned to the institution. It is difficult to find additional resources that would allow the archives to engage in extra and additional work.

The big challenge is how to address the archival heritage of the Other (the Other being any group of migrants, both immigrants and emigrants). Dealing with the Other has been the preoccupation of heritage professionals and a wide range of scholars, from early ethnographic studies to contemporary anthropological research. Contemporary archival studies wish to include the Other as a co-creator, in a participatory and post-custodial manner. In archival practices, this would present as much a challenge as an opportunity.

Historical records and archival heritage transcend country borders, even though archival policies and practices abide by them. Understanding different archival traditions and working across them is a task that demands numerous skills. Real and metaphorical borders govern over so many factors. It is not just people who migrate, but their records as well, ending up outside the jurisdiction of national archives. And yet, the decisions on how to manage their records, the heritage that the migrants brought with them, are made within the context of one archival system.

In many European countries, archives have for decades now been involved in gathering both records and information about records from the emigrant population of their respective countries. The archives also collect and preserve records about historical national minorities and immigrants. The challenge might be in approaching them in the same manner of ethics of care.

Researchers are accustomed to using archival records in a way that was never intended by their creator, or even the archivists. An average citizen with no research skills, on the other hand, might need more help in using the archives. How do we design systems and services that they will find useful?

There are numerous challenges to be dealt with, as well as opportunities to look forward to. The cultural heritage of migrants is complex. It warrants a cautious, transnational approach, upskilling in numerous domains and, most important of all, understanding. We hope to get closer to achieving this goal within the AToM project.

Impression of borders: Pacific Ocean from California shores, February 2023

Credit: text and photographs by Tamara Štefanac

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