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ARA Conference 2018 - SUMMARY OF GUS JOHN

KEYNOTE (29th August)

Speaking on his theme of the ‘Choices of the Living and the Dead’ and addressing the conference headline of ‘People Make Records’, Professor John identified the three major problems facing recordkeepers and records in relation to the social history of African (and other) diaspora in the UK:

wilful omission

falsification and distortion


The reality of the archives and records space, he said, is that people not only make records, they also determine what to record and what is done with it once recorded. Too often, they only retain and preserve what’s easy or do what they have always done. They lose sight of the ‘culture’ and reality of those being recorded. Unless there is a concerted effort pro-actively to collect, preserve and make accessible the records of marginalised and migrant communities, we will lose crucial links – for example between the post-war Empire Windrush generation and their descendants. We have already seen the ‘airbrushing’ of social history in relation to Windrush: yes, these young migrants were adventurers seeking opportunity, but they were also the products of the collapsed/collapsing post-slavery, colonial economic structures of the Caribbean and west Africa that had created a large, displaced pool of labour and which needs to be seen as part of a wider Global African diaspora.  

The wilful ignorance of the reality of the race riots, racial violence and prejudice has permeated British society and official policymaking from the 1950s through to the modern day; also, disinterest in how very different migrant groups managed to find ways to co-exist and co-operate in local settings. This airbrushing of context facilitates the easy/naïve belief that the street violence in London of today has ‘nothing to do with the state of Britain itself’ and ignores the ‘tendency of each generation to take for granted the struggle of those that went before them and to assume that history began with them.’ No surprise that the male descendants of the Windrush generation have the highest youth unemployment and school exclusion rates.

On falsification, erasure and distortion, Professor John referenced the deliberate destruction of records by the government around the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in an attempt to distort who the rebels were and why they were rebelling; similarly, in the modern day, the continued denial of the rights of the people of Diego Garcia. Cultures of oppression (or omission), he added, breed cultures of resistance. Pointing out the amount of attention in 2018 focused on the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act versus the wilful omission of discussion of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, Professor John saw this as reflected society’s preference for ignoring the value of ‘lessons of how things go wrong’ – they are ‘at least as important as (focusing on) how things were put right.’

In response to questions, Professor John said the biggest challenge facing the profession may be long-established mindsets about how to do the job and a preference for ‘business as usual’. Some find it too difficult to ‘consider what an alternative might be’ in practical terms. There is, he said, a lack of focus on the importance of archives/records when designing educational curricula. We need to think outside the box about ‘positive action measures’ and about working strategically with training bodies to forge change. Compared to the amount of work being done in the museums’ sector, a lot more work evidently needs to be done to improve diversity in the archives and records space. Once place to start is in schools, reaching and encouraging young people from recent migrant backgrounds – but learning from the experience of other sectors and not just dumping them in institutions where they may not feel a sense of belonging.

Finally, Professor John urged delegates to take full advantage of ‘archives on legs’, eg the elders within migrant communities, whose testimony may build more informed, rounded context and many of whom come from cultures with strong oral traditions. He himself would like to see ‘Stories of the Windrush Generation in 100 People’, for example. Oral archives and records are crucial in building links to the past and explaining context – including (especially) for peoples who may not enjoy high levels of general literacy or literacy ‘in research methodology.’ Such records provide the ‘glue’ that places and keeps people together and gives voice to those whose experiences are as important as anyone’s.



KEYNOTE (30th August)

Ms Caswell’s keynote, entitled ‘Now More than Ever: community archives and the political urgency of memory work’ focused on the question of built-in ‘white supremacy’ in the established model of recordkeeping and the content of the archives and the need to think more radically if such models are to be re-fashioned.

Set in the US recordkeeping context – though with evident links to challenges in our parts of the world (as evidenced in the brief questions session at the end) – Ms Caswell’s talk centred on two discrete elements: the concept of ‘time’ and the experience (particularly) of ‘people of colour’ and the LGBTQ communities. The established concept of time in an archival context is rooted, she argues in western, linear progressive terms – steady improvement and reforms to develop better collections, access, etc. and thereby more informed outcomes.

However, for many other cultures – and to marginalised groups – progression is ‘not the default.’ Their dominant concept of ‘time’ is recurring cycles, with institutions that are ‘designed to oppress’ repeating negative outcomes for the marginalised. Archives get drawn into- or can be complicit in -  this. The records about those communities are often ‘extracted’ without permission or consultation by the system and are seldom the stories of those communities themselves. Therefore, the community archive is a critically important means to remaking the model of record making, record collecting and ownership. In that way, with the records of past experiences rooted in their own communities, successor generations are able to learn about their past in their own language, see the patterns of oppression and anticipate/counter-act them in the future.

Ms Caswell looked at a range of different communities that have benefited from a more radical approach to community archives. There is no single model of how to do this: some of the community archives mentioned were autonomous, some were extensions of government structures. But all had at heart the principle of empowering peoples whose voice was marginalised and under-represented and enabling them to people to do it on their own terms.  The outcome in most cases was the creation of ‘spaces to connect past injustices with contemporary activism’, ie addressing the needs of the ‘cycle’ now not at some illusory, idyllic point in the future.

Ms Caswell explained some of the focus group commentary she had received in the course of her research, much of which was in the context of the 2016 US presidential election. For example, the fears expressed by elders of a community that the young ‘might not (be able to) see the political significance of their identity’ and those of others making connections between ‘the anti-gay legislation of the past and attempts to ban Muslims entering the US today.’ Those in control of the official political agenda - and ‘who have the power’ - use sneaky, manipulative language to try to control the record, too. At the same time, there was optimism. Some talked about ‘using the archives to counteract things done in the past’ and of describing their own experiences of imprisonment when they were younger because ‘they don’t want it to happen to others now.’

In terms of solutions, Ms Caswell set out that – as a profession – recordkeepers needed to confront the core question from which everything flowed: the inherent biases and supremacist basis of the profession, even if it might make us feel uncomfortable. This didn’t just affect us, it was in the justice system, education and government. But only when we understood this, she added, would we be able to challenge standard approaches – ie, move away from just collecting more stuff more diversely that might have some unspecified future value and instead prioritise ‘interventions (that) focus on the (needs of) now.’ Breaking entrenched cycles and achieving change requires seismic, structural disruption.

Finally, Ms Caswell focused on access, appraisal and records creation – eg, the appeal among marginalised communities of seeing ‘items created by my community in the archives’ and the value that that process generates, as well as the credibility it creates for the archive itself. At the same time, we must make efforts to address the many non-records barriers to participation, down to the types of official identification archives often routinely insisted that visitors show. 



KEYNOTE (31st August) 

Martyn’s message revolved around the simple steps and changes that anyone can make, that together can make a big difference to disabled people. The key is ‘making a start and not feeling intimidated’ by the choices and range of needs. Some things might cost money, but often it is improvements - like making websites screen-reader friendly - that can have an impact way beyond the immediate operational environment.

Martyn started by reminding delegates that there are 1 billion people on the planet with some form of disability. He used his own story to show how the goal of freedom and independence can attained and how barriers to them can be broken down; how ‘social model’ barriers such as care, equipment, housing and transport already create an unlevel playing field for disabled people before they even begin to try and access wider goods, services and opportunities in wider society

Based around established work by Maslow on ‘hierarchy of needs’ – with the ultimate goal of ‘achieving full potential’ – Martyn has identified three types of barriers that particularly affect disabled people:

  • Environmental (such as physical access to a building)
  • Attitudinal (such as it being ‘too difficult’ to consider employing disabled people)
  • Organisational (the need to book things like train transport well in advance to ensure that staff will be on hand to help with boarding)


He also focused on the ‘inclusive super-powers’ – such as a positive mindset - for disabled people themselves (self-esteem, self-confidence, the acquisition skills and knowledge), and the positive impact of ‘being taken outside the comfort zone and the feeling more alive.’ This also applied to those wanting to help break down barriers to disabled access. In terms of the archives and records space, he has seen the ‘super-power’ effect of digital storytelling – generating inspiration by archiving the work done by many in the community to empower disabled people; also, the ability to identify ‘how and when to act’, by learning form the past and from the experiences of those who have gone before.

For those aiming to improve access for disabled people, the key is often nothing more than ‘good customer service’: anticipating, learning, seeking feedback on what disabled people might like. There is, Martyn said, a role for legislation, but also a lot that can be done to stress the economic benefits of having more disabled people in employment – untapped skills and talent (and resilience!) – as well as more people using and accessing goods and services; not forgetting the potential to unlock the spending power of 20% of the population! Using his own experiences of overseas travel, embracing winter sports, driving, and setting up (then selling) a business focused on serving disabled customers, Martyn showed the potential for creative thinking and informed risk-taking to change perceptions and make a real difference.

In response to questions from the floor, Martyn pointed out the positive (often unintended) consequences of improving access for disabled people. For example, signage in tourism locations aimed at people with learning difficulties also appeared to help non-native speakers of the local language. And in terms of what we, as record-keepers could do to help disabled audiences relate to material, de-stigmatise disability and tackle his three barrier-types (above), he encouraged photos and oral testimony for their impact value in terms of historical problems and showing where progress has been made, as well as mainstreaming such content in regular outreach, marketing and communications.