Profound Archive Loss Syndrome

By guest writer Simon Herbert

Many times in our lives, we only realize the importance of something after it’s gone. That’s what our parents tend to preach to us: to value what you have in the long term; but, usually, we don’t listen, and “stuff” happens; and suddenly, when things go awry, we’re back to that simple protean realization: once something has gone… it’s pretty much gone forever.

Let’s apply this example to photographic collections– often the most transient and delicate of materials; be they of photograph originals, or photographic records of drawing/paintings, etc. In this electronic age – as our three backup Hard Drives hum away, automatically storing all those lovely pixels – we tend to be quite complacent, overall, about the survival of our archives. Sure, maybe, in a sudden moment of digital anxiety, we might worry about a rogue terrorist Electro Magnetic Pulse bomb that will wipe out all of our archives in a nanosecond. But that’s a plot point from a Hollywood flick, right? So other than that, everything will be fine….

… except when things do go wrong (have you ever heard the panic of the voice of someone on an Apple helpline whose iMac has crashed, and they have no iPhoto backup?). Yet there are other, graver, dangers to archives that are still in that pre-digital state. In short: both complacency, and bureaucratic neglect, can cause valuable non-digitized materials to disappear forever.

I have my own experience with a symptom that should be identified as “profound archive loss.” In a previous life, I was the co-director of a UK arts agency, Locus+, which produced more than 200 art installations, performances and public art events over a 20-year period; we documented every primal scream, every sculpture, every street event. For over more than three decades, we shot 35mm, and Betamax on a video player the size of three breeze blocks (how we would have loved a small digi-camera, or even an iPhone!).

Formed in the 70s, Locus+ (the organization continues to this day; though I am no longer a director, and now live in the US), its mission was to produce new projects; but also, in context, to accrue an important cross-generational body of evidence of artistic activity from various decades, for reference from future artists, scholars and the media.

All of which was a worthy goal; but as a non-profit organization, we never had the resources to actually digitize the physical photo negatives and positives that we were accruing. So when, in 2005, a fire took out about 15% of the physical archive (and necessitated the surviving negative material to be washed in various chemical baths to rescue it from smoke damage), there was a gut-rending sense that something had been lost that could never be recreated. If only the resources and infrastructure had been there…? The loss still resonates like a hammer on a bell… a plaintive death knell for an under-resourced arts company. There is nothing like sifting through the fire-warped filing cabinets, and seeing slides melted into a puddle, and also the physical damage caused by the firefighters trying to put out the fire with water, to make you realize the impermanence of documentation….

Which is why the recent allegations that the Tate – with all its massive resources – has, apparently, dumped its invaluable photographic archive in a “skip” (a dumpster) comes over as particularly sad, if not scandalous; because this is a massively influential organization that should really know better.

Reported in the Guardian newspaper: (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/23/tate-national-photographic-archive-rescued), it appears that photographs of the artworks from their collections was dumped, way back in 2008; due to an alleged internal inertia and a simple lack of bureaucratic clarity. The material was rescued by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (a UK educational charity with links to Yale University) only after a “low-ranking” employee warned them of the action, and caused Mellon to immediately send out a van to rescue the material. If this seems like an incredible oversight by an organization that holds the national collection of British art from the Tudors onwards, the Tate denies this was the case…

Yet, also at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in 2007, an archive of black and white photographs of almost every item in the museum’s collection grouped by subject was also, apparently, dumped, due to storage space concerns.

If it seems genuinely baffling that even lauded institutions like this can fail to appreciate materials amassed by generations of curators (thereby allowing both scholars and the public to trace the lineage of creative properties), then it seems we all must take a second, and even a third, glance at our own responsibilities as proactive caretakers; in protecting creative and archival material that we feel is vital and important. We are our own museums, the curators of our own materials and lives. If we don’t do protect our memories, who else will?

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