Defining Memories

How we think about our past and how our past thinks about us

Adventures in the Archive

Quietly traveling in time—very quietly.

Even with the seductive abundance of the Internet, visiting an archive holds a distinctive allure. To sit and study artifacts is to be transported to a different time and place, to be a voyeur with impunity, probing the lives of others, reading private letters, looking at family photographs, trying to understand how people could have possibly behaved so foolishly, or so wisely.  It is quiet, sustained excitement. A time machine to the past. 

My recent research on the psychology of collective violence brought me to a new collection at the Rhodes House Archive at Oxford University—on the anti-apartheid movements and the pro-apartheid responses within South Africa and internationally. Although the checking out of archival materials was scrupulously regulated, the archive made me comfortable right away, with its carved wooden birds of prey at the ends of each well-polished banister and the giant portrait of Nelson Mandela and other heroes looking down approvingly from the high walls. I had come to research the militant ideologies that supported apartheid and those that opposed it, and I had come to the right place.

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One virtue of the archive is that it is not the Internet. Tangible artifacts can be held and studied, touched and smelled. There are handwritten letters in ink, with first thoughts crossed out and replaced. There are photographs. Notes in the margins of speeches. And there are provocative embarrassments, such as an annotated transcription of Walter Cronkite’s interview with President Reagan, and the President’s very strong support of the apartheid government.  Followed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s now forgotten prediction: “President Reagan will be judged harshly by history.”

Studying the original artifacts and documents in an archive not only reminds us of what we have conveniently forgotten but also provides an exciting immediacy.

I encourage everyone to visit an archive, some time, when it can be arranged. Museums provoke and enlighten, but they are designed for large groups of people, serving the dual purpose of informing and entertaining. An archive houses the artifacts of an uninterpreted past, bestowing each individual with the particular joy of appreciating and finding one’s own meaning in the present. 

Robert N. Kraft, Ph.D., is professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein University. 

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