4th October 2018: Who’s Afraid of the Archive? Interdisciplinary meetup for artists, scholars and archivists

Who’s afraid of the Archive? 

Interdisciplinary meetup for artists, scholars and archivists

International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

Archives fascinate. Whether as dusty, mysterious spaces, as systems of knowledge, or as treasure troves of stories. The archives and data collections of HuC cover a wide array of topics, periods and places, from Medieval Dutch texts, to Karl Marx manuscripts, audio recordings of local dialects, archives of women’s rights campaigners, a personal diaries collection and an archive of letters to the future. What can artists and scholars learn from each other in their approach to the archive?


A meetup

On 4th October 2018, the Humanities Cluster (HuC) of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and ARIAS (the Amsterdam Research Institute of the Arts and Sciences) invited artists, curators and researchers to ‘HuC harbour’, a converted cocoa warehouse in the former port area of Amsterdam. It is home of the International Institute of Social History (IISH) and also stores the archival and data collections of another institution co-operating in the cluster: the Meertens Institute. The third party in the Humanities Cluster is the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, located in the centre of Amsterdam.


Researchers of HuC work with the riches of the collections, while artists are also increasingly drawn to the archives. The point of departure for this evening came from the idea that these academic and artist researchers have much to learn from each other, but do not regularly meet. It aimed to foster the exchange of shared interests, for example in experimental ways of questioning and researching archival and data collections, data visualization, digital humanities, sonic archiving and archival activism.


This meetup aimed to engage artists and scholars in a dialogue on their research approaches, methods and results, to learn from each other’s experiences and to explore future research collaborations. The evening was centred on five round tables with case study presentations, offering opportunities for artists and researchers to meet on the basis of common interests.


Table 1: Visualizing and Conceptualizing Labour Relations: Work and Power – International Institute of Social History


Table 2: ‘It is an invention of the devil’, the audio collection of the Meertens Institute


Table 3: Activating inclusivity at the IISH


Table 4: reading and writing in the margins – Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands


Table 5: ARCH04547

For table descriptions, please scroll down.


Who’s afraid of the Archive?

18.30 (walk-in)
19.00 – 22.00 (and drinks)

Opening by HuC archives & ARIAS

Followed by an opening talk by belit sag (artist)


Table 1: Visualizing and Conceptualizing Labour Relations: Work and Power – International Institute of Social History

(initiator: Gijs Kessler)



At some point in life, everybody works. Even the ultra-rich raise their children, run their household, or manage their assets. But the power-relations under which work is performed, can differ greatly, from the billionaire talking to his stockbroker from the agricultural labourer trudging in debt-slavery. Historically, the variation is even greater, from chattel-slaves, to hunter-gatherers, and to community-based redistributive agents. The power relations under which work is performed are the focus of the research programme of the International Institute of Social History, and are referred to as “labour relations”. Labour relations can be equal or unequal, and all the shades of grey in between these two opposites. They also change over time. Together, they show the interconnections and dependencies through which a society makes ends meet and supports the young, the elderly, the infirm and others who are not required or expected to work themselves. Labour relations are about power, about dependencies, and about symbiosis. At this table, we aimed to initiate new research collaborations in visualizing and conceptualizing these labour relations.


Link: https://socialhistory.org/en/projects/history-labour-relations-1500-2000


Table 2: ‘It is an invention of the devil’, the audio collection of the Meertens Institute  (initiator: Douwe Zeldenrust)


Suddenly you find yourself sitting at a kitchen table in the 1970s, being witness to a casual conversation between old friends, where a good story is told or a local song is sung, while the clock ticks and coffee is poured. The only thing missing is the smell of tobacco smoke. Welcome to the audio collection of the Meertens Institute. Between 1998 and 2018 the entire audio collection of the KNAW Meertens Institute has been carefully digitised (converted from analogue sources such as wax rolls form the 1930s, records, and magnetic tapes to digital standard formats) by now-retired audio technician Kees Grijpink.


A total of 6,382 hours of digitised audio is ready for further exploration. The recordings are numerous and diverse. It contains, for example, songs and stories recorded during fieldwork all across the Netherlands, Flanders and even the United States. These and other sub-collections, like the archive of pioneering researcher Louise Kaiser from the early and mid-twentieth century, hold a wealth of information. Specific parts of the collection, such as the Dutch Dialect Database, have already been made available through the website of the Meertens Institute. Through well-preserved and sometimes startling pristine audio, the collections provide access to endearing, private, and surprising moments in time.


These vast collections are not only the workplace for archivists and of interest for scholars studying linguistics and ethnology. They can also be seen as a rich playground for artists. For example: one current emerging crossover is the ‘Instituut voor Huisgeluid’. Founder and artist Elise ‘t Hart is interested in studying and preserving the sounds of squeaky floors, tinkling cups and vibrating phones of the Meertens Institute sound recordings. Sounds that, in the ears of the scholars traditionally working with the collections, interfere with their primary goals. The Meertens Institute is interested in collaborating with artists to find new perspectives and new ways of working with the audio collection.


Links: http://www.meertens.knaw.nl/ndb





Table 3: Activating inclusivity at the International Institute of Social History 
(initiators: Leila Musson, Hannah MacKay, Thijs van Leeuwen)


Is it a question of ‘who is afraid of the archive?’ or instead ‘what are we doing to make people afraid?’. There are ghosts waiting in the stacks, there are still skeletons in our closets. When and how can archival activism or artists’ archival work play a role in facing these challenges and in ‘unpacking underrepresented narratives or histories’? We discussed how increasing inclusiveness and access in an archive can help to break down the isolation of an archival institution and be more welcoming to those otherwise unaccustomed. We explored how ‘activist archiving’ can play a role in recuperating and repatriating materials belonging to those who are in them, questioning what materials can be accessed by whom and under which circumstances. As an archival institution, the IISH can learn from researchers from different backgrounds to make our spaces more inclusive and conducive to their research. In this table we started to identify barriers to the archive and began to take steps to break them down according to the needs of our current and future users.


Link: 52 questions about the archive


Table 4: Reading and writing in the margins – Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands
(initiator: Mariken Teeuwen)

Significant things happen in the margins. Over the past years, I ran a project studying the practices of reading and writing in the early Middle Ages (c. 800-c. 1000), with a particular interest in the margins of medieval texts. In the making of a medieval book, not only the writer, but many other parties were involved: correctors, illuminators, but also expounders and readers. Together, they added layers of comments in the margins of texts in order to give some guidance into their structure, meaning and interpretation. Books were, in other words, frequently annotated: enlarged with paratexts and a-textual clues for readers. Today, this medieval method of ‘guided’ reading still survives in schoolbooks: the margins of a Latin textbook, for example, may give us information about grammar or extra historical background. Modern fiction authors have also experimented with the idea of paratext, adding layers that show (unexpected) associations of their characters or responses from different readers (think for example about the work of Reif Larsen, ‘The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet’ and Doug Dorst/J.J. Abrams, ‘S’). In ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, Harry only starts to excel in brewing potions when he follows the marginal annotations in his second-hand textbook. In this session, I presented medieval reading practices and reflected on our current (paper and digital) practices of reading and writing. Experiments with reading layers and paratexts are a rich field of research and exploration, especially in collaboration with artists and authors. At Huygens, we are interested to meet with writers, artists and other researchers to explore potential future research projects ‘in the margins’.

Link: https://www.marginalscholarship.nl


Table 5: ARCH04547 (initiator Pieter Paul Pothoven)


The recent project of visual artist Pieter Paul Pothoven (Amsterdam, 1981) sheds light on RARA, the Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action. During the 1980s and 1990s, this resistance collective fought against racism, oppression and exploitation, the ongoing legacy of Dutch imperialist history. Pothoven has worked extensively with various archives throughout his practice, for example with the Geological Survey of Afghanistan in Kabul, but unlike previous projects, in which he used the archive as a one-way resource for information (a common practice within the sciences and the arts), he is now composing an archive about and in close consultation with RARA, which will be donated to the IISH. During the round table he addressed leading questions in this process, like: What is the status of the artist practice within the archive and vice versa? And how can the artist mediate access to information beyond an art context?


Link: www.pieterpaulpothoven.com



October 4, 2018


18:30 - 22:00


Institute of Social History Cruquiusweg 31 Amsterdam