Reimagining Archives

By Imagining America | September 09, 2013

Sarah MeltonBy Sarah Melton, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University and 2013–2014 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores the idea of third spaces of engagement between communities and campuses, a topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 4–6, in Syracuse, NY. This post’s focus: Archives, Histories and Museums as Productive Third Spaces.

What happens when we re-imagine archives as sites of collaboration between publics and institutions? Not merely passive repositories of the past, these spaces can serve as meeting points where publics engage and reinterpret cultural heritage. These collaborative methodologies are instructive for higher education institutions, since universities face many of the same challenges in forming equitable partnerships with communities. Indeed, some of these models are found in archives, libraries, and museums that are already affiliated with universities. Given this proximity, it is even more essential that this public engagement is not “off-loaded” to archival institutions, but instead becomes a holistic aspect of higher education.

Those involved in the production of knowledge are familiar with injunctions to make their work publicly accessible and engaging. Yet, many of these well-intentioned pleas still premise “public scholarship” as a one-way street: the receptive audience and the expert guardian of knowledge. Instead of an equal partnership, “public engagement” too often becomes a problem of “telling stories to an unsophisticated audience” [1].

Moreover, the relationship between institutions and their constituents can be quite contentious. For instance, we know that some archival collections have been stolen or unethically obtained. In response, some libraries, archives, and museums have begun to critically examine their collection and exhibition histories. High profile museums like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, for example, have begun the repatriation of some of their American Indian collections. As of 2011, the Smithsonian had offered to repatriate over 5000 human remains and 212,000 funerary objects [2]. While still incomplete, this kind of work can begin to shift the relationships between institutions and communities.

As a result of these troubling histories, some new projects are rethinking archival methodologies. I’d like to briefly highlight an initiative that works to reconfigure notions of authority and expertise. The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal is a digital “gateway” to cultural materials of Plateau peoples. The collection, co-curated by Washington State University staff and tribal consultants, includes photographs and documents. Significantly, not all material is available to the public—tribal administrators can restrict access to items that may be confidential. The goal is to “create a different paradigm for the curation, distribution, and reproduction of Native peoples’ cultural materials,” one that renegotiates the structures of power that have traditionally governed the control of cultural heritage [3]. This “third space” respects the needs of multivocal communities, including the need for privacy.

These kinds of partnerships subvert assumptions about the supremacy of academic knowledge. For institutions to enter into these collaborations requires a commitment to crossing cultural and social boundaries [4]. This transgression demands no small amount of courage, given the pressures to remain cloistered in academe. All the same, libraries, archives, and museums—even with their histories of exclusion and exploitation—offer valuable examples of productive transgressions.


[1] Ivan Karp, “Public Scholarship as a Vocation,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 11.3 (2012): 287.

[2] Smithsonian Institution, “Annual Report of the Repatriation Activities of the Smithsonian Institution,” 2011.

[3] Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, “Project Overview,”

[4] Karp, 288.