History Acts 22 – Recording a Crisis: Blog Post by Paul Dudman
This evening (Tuesday, 9th June) between 6.30pm and 8.30pm, History Acts will be hosting their 22nd event reflecting on the importance of history in relation to modern society. This evening’s event is entitled, “Recording a Crisis” and will focus upon how “Those most affected by COVID-19 are often unable to speak.” My name is Paul Dudman and I am the Archivist at the University of East London, where we host a number of key archival collections including the Refugee Council Archive; British Olympic Association Archive and the Hidden Histories Archive of oral histories curated by Eastside Community Heritage. I have been invited to speak tonight in my role as an activist and as the curator of the Living Refugee Archive online portal.
I know for tonight’s History Acts event, we have a packed schedule of great speakers so we will each only get 10 minutes to reflect on our own work followed by questions at the end of the online session, so just wanted to take this opportunity to put a few of my thoughts that I hope to share during History Acts 22 down on paper.
To help contextualise our work, I just wanted to give a few sentences of background to the work that we do. I have been the Archivist for the University of East London for over seventeen years now. Our archival collections have grown substantially over the years to incorporate Olympic history; Theatre studies; East London history and even football fanzines. However, one of our key focuses has always been on refugee and forced migration studies. Our archival journey began with the arrival of the archive of the Refugee Council back in November of 2002. The existing physical collections documenting responses to refugee situations from 1951 through to the present, documenting the responses of the Refugee Council to refugee situations over the period from 1951 through to the present day.
We are still actively receiving new deposits of materials from the Refugee Council whilst also collecting more broadly within this field, so the Archive itself now contains multiple collections from NGO’s and third sector organisations, including oral history collections undertaken in collaboration with community groups and third sector organisations.
We have also worked extensively on a number of civic engagement and outreach projects both funded through the University of East London and also externally. The creation of the Living Refugee Archive has been a successful output of one these projects, established through a civic engagement project entitled, “Democratic Access or Privileged Exclusion: Civic Engagement through the Preservation and Access to Refugee Archives.” Our remit for the Living Refugee Archive was to create an online resource that could facilitate and democratise access to archival material on the lived experiences of migration. Our experience over the years has taught us that archival materials on refugee and migration experiences can often be vary difficult both to find and to access, and we hope that through our work both with the Living Refugee Archive and also more widely through our external networks, we might be able to begin to rectify some of these challenges.
Recording a Crisis
The theme for the History Acts 22 event tonight is `Recording a Crisis’, reflecting on how `those most affected by COVID-19 are often unable to speak,’ bringing together historians, activists and archivists to consider not only the impact of the current Coronavirus pandemic, but also wider issues on who else within our communities are not being heard or listened to?
I will confess that in preparation of a few slides to act as a reference point for my talk tonight, I accidently (okay, maybe I should say with extensive planning and forethought), stumbled on the idea of a `SAFE approach’ to working with our communities within the current crisis, with SAFE being an acronym for Sustainability; Agency; Fragmentation; and Engagement. I will touch upon each of these in turn.
I am thinking here of Sustainability in relation to ensuring the collections we manage are sustainable in the medium to longer terms in response to external pressures (Pandemic) and institutional pressures (changes in focus and funding). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented across the world and for those of us who have responsibility for archival collections, one of the key factors will be how we respond to this crisis in terms of our collecting remit – the whys and how’s of what we collect and whose voice is given agency, and whose voice is hidden?
There has certainly been a response to the pandemic in terms of the response of collecting institutions, both large and small, looking to document and preserve the impact of the pandemic on their communities. Indeed, as part of the Living Refugee Archive, we will be launching our LRA COVID-19 Collecting project (see: http://www.livingrefugeearchive.org/archives/living-refugee-archive-covid-19-archive-share-your-story/) in due course. However, one of the reasons for us to hold back on this has been the issue of sustainability. This can be seen as both a short term and a longer term concern. In the short term, we have been working from home since mid-March as a consequence of the pandemic and are therefore separated from our physical archival collections for three months now, with no immediate return date to on campus working in site, this will be the situation for the foreseeable future. This creates its own challenges for how we manage archival collections in lockdown and the services and collecting opportunities that we/are not able to offer. It also places pressures on staffing and the ability to respond effectively to any new call outs for archival materials. There are also online infrastructural issues to consider as to how we can best manage, preserve and make accessible materials that we receive in born digital formats.
Longer term, there are of course economical and institutional issues to consider. No one really knows at this stage the degree of severity of any economic downtown that ill occur as a consequence of the pandemic, factor this in with uncertainty over student recruitment for the 2020/21 academic year for those of us working in the higher education sector, uncertainty over the potential longer term impact of the pandemic on Universities and the archival collections they hold, remains to be seen, but it is likely to be a very challenging environment in which to manage and develop new collections. In a similar vain, access to funding opportunities is also likely to be considerably impacted in the medium term, raising additional challenges for securing funding for archive-led activities and developing new collections and outreach opportunities.
Equally, for those of us who work with multiple collections in different thematic subject areas, there are both opportunities and dangers in trying to manage and develop these collections. Looking at our own collections, we currently cover thematic areas including refugee and migration studies; Olympic history; Theatre history; East London studies; and our own institutional archives. Each of these areas is distinct enough to justify the collection of COVID-19 materials in relation to the individual thematic areas, but would be almost impossible to achieve effectively with the current staffing levels (one full member of archives stuff) and limitations on technological infrastructure. However, if we choose to be selective, are we falling into exactly the trap that History Acts 22 is looking to challenge, the documenting selective voices whilst ignoring others. We as archivists are also dependent to a certain degree on the focuses of our host institutions, and requirements for supporting institutional strategies which may not also entirely reflect the focuses of the archival collections that we hold.
For Agency, we need to be sure that we are encouraging and supporting communities and facilitating their agency to help document and make accessible their own Voices. We are living in very challenging times at the moment, as highlighted by both the pandemic and the current situation in America in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. Political and media discourses on issues of migration have been challenging even before this with the impact of the hostile environment policies in the UK, and we need to ensure these narrative approaches are not fragmented even further with nationalistic or racialised overtones by looking to ensure that we are facilitating a sense of agency to those communities whose voices we believe need to be heard, whilst being aware of not falling into the trap of enabling the narratives of trauma or victimhood at the expense of encouraging the ownership of their own stories.
The Reckoning with Refugeedom project at the University of Manchester, situate their work as do refuges, “present as victims, marginalised and erased from history, or as deliberate agents? How do refugees become historians …. (or archivists?) …. of their own displacement, seeking to gain the recognition of one another and of posterity.”
We need to reflect on the work that we do and consider are we doing enough to facilitate enabling refugees to become the “deliberate agents” of their own voices? By looking to document refugee stories and testimonies, are we
Archival collecting of under-represented voices can often be fragmentary at best, we need to heighten our efforts in the approaches that we undertake in the collecting that we do, and look to develop networks and opportunities to help develop modes of collaboration across institutional and thematic boundaries.
Kershaw argued in 2009 that “Records of migrants are scattered across archives in the United Kingdom
and overseas” (p. 11), whilst a decade later, Speller indicated in a scoping report on the archive of The Association of Ukrainian Women in Great Britain, “archives documenting migration and refugee issues within the UK are scattered between numerous different archival institutions” (2019, p.11). It has been interesting to work with a number of different collections at the University of East London, collected at different times and for different reasons, and to slowly start to unpick the relationships and overlaps between this collections. The danger of fragmentation can also be reflected upon as the danger associated with overlooking archival collections and the scope of the materials that they may contain, for bringing to life stories pertinent to the subject in hand.
Examples from our own collections include the discovery of press cuttings from the 1948 Olympic Games held in London highlighting the requests for asylum in the United Kingdom from the Hungarian swimming team and one of the coaches of the Czech team. Or this discussions in the 1950’s about whether stateless athletes should be allowed to compete at the Olympic Games, foreshadowing the Refugee Team that competed at Rio
Olympic Games in 2016. Equally the discovery in the Hackney Empire Archives of posters for events held in support of political prisoners in Chile during the military regime of General Pinochet; and the events held in relation to situations in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Iraq. Or a very local level, the collection of oral and community histories in North Woolwich and Silvertown, adjacent to our UEL Docklands Campus in East London, which document the changes to the area following the decline of the Royal Docks; the impact of social housing and more recent plans for renewal and regeneration. We need to remind ourselves and those we engage with to sometimes look beyond the obvious in the materials that we collect and to explore our collections in more depth to find those hidden voices just waiting to be heard.
In terms of Engagement, it is key that we look to collaborate beyond the walls of the academia, by looking to engage with local communities, activist groups and third sector organisations. To ensure that we are supporting communities to develop their own agency and to allow their voices to be heard, we need to be prepared to look beyond our own institutional boundaries and be willing to engage and collaborate as much as possible.
Over the past five years or so at UEL, we have been very fortunate through the UEL Civic Engagement fund to be able to develop and run a number of civic engagement and outreach projects, linking UEL students and academics with local community based groups and NGOs on diverse projects including documenting oral histories of migration to East London; performance theatre based on archival narratives; local community history in East London; the development of a mental health online portal for refugees, and the OLIve course for refugees and asylum seekers. Externally also, we have established the Oral History Society Migration Special Interest Group bringing together oral historians and community groups working on migration issues – a notable success being able to support the Wai Yin Society in Manchester in a successful HLF project application entitled Crossing the Borders, designed to document the Chinese community in Manchester; and the IASFM Working Group on the History of Forced Migration and Refugees: An International Working Group for Archiving and Documentation, an international collaboration of academics, activists and third sector practitioners interested in the role of archives in supporting refugee narratives.
In response to COVID-19, developing these kinds of collaborations and networks are going to become more vital than ever as we slowly start to return to the new normality and return to exploring new ways of enabling all voices to be heard.
Our work to date with both our physical and digital collecting has focused on the concept of displaced persons and refugees as being “the experts of their own experience,” (Hynes, 2003, p.1) whilst our ongoing civic engagement and outreach programmes have centred on projects looking at bottom-up oral history approaches towards exploring the “contradictory narratives of transcultural encounters of refugees and undocumented migrants in London” (Hashem and Dudman, 2016) and beyond.
This has led us to exploring the ethics of how can archives approach the documenting of the life history narratives of refugees and migrants, especially as archives are home to a multitude of interacting stories, narratives and testimonies. Some rise to the surface easily, others are hidden. With he advent of COVID-19 and the lasting implications of this pandemic, it is going to be a challenge to ensure that we are able to archive stories and encourage agency amongst under documented groups, whilst at the same time ensuring the stability and continuing to maintain access to our collections.
For Refugee Week 2020, we are launching the first volume of our new open access online journal – Displaced Voices: A Journal of Archives, Migration and Cultural Heritage. Our aim is for the journal to engage with issues pertaining the intersection of refugee and migration studies with participatory archive and oral history methodologies and the role of cultural heritage in relation to the refugee experience. Broad themes will include refugee and migration history; cultural and intangible history; community memory and notions of identity; the role of archives and oral history in documenting the refugee and migration experiences. We are thinking to focus the Call for Papers for Volume Two for issues specifically around the impact of COVID-19 so would be interested in any potential feedback on this.
Dudman, Paul V. (2019). `Oral History and Collective Memory: Documenting Refugee Voices and the Challenges of Archival Representation.’ Atlanti +, 29 (2), pp. 33-43. Maribor: The International Institute for Archival Science of Trieste and Maribor. Available at: https://repository.uel.ac.uk/item/87w6v (Accessed: 9 June 2020).
Hashem, Rumana and Dudman, Paul V. (2016) ‘Paradoxical narratives of transcultural encounters of the “other”: Civic engagement with refugees and migrants in London’, Transnational Social Review, 6(1-2), pp. 192-199. doi: 10.1080/21931674.2016.1186376
Hynes. Tricia (2003) The issue of ‘trust’ or ‘mistrust’ in research with refugees: choices, caveats and considerations for researchers. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/research/working/3fcb5cee1/issue-trust-mistrust-research-refugees-choices-caveats-considerations-researchers.html (Accessed: 9 June 2020).
Kershaw, Roger. (2009). Migration Records: A guide for family historians. Kew: The National Archives.
Speller, Jane (2019). Scoping report on the archive of The Association of Ukrainian Women in Great Britain. Kew: The National Archives.