Archive fever (the box room)

Archive Fever’, a fascinating radio documentary on personal and public archival collections was broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Hindsight yesterday afternoon. Lyn Gallacher was the producer and I was one of the guests.

Lyn asked to interview me because she had read ‘Sweeping up the ashes’ The Politics of Personal Papers, an essay on archives I wrote for Australian Book Review in late 2011. The piece was the result of a $5000 Sydney Myer Fund Fellowship that I had been awarded earlier that year.

It was a thrill to get that fellowship and I relished the chance to interview many of Australia’s most provocative and important archivists, librarians and curators, people like Joanna Sassoon, Michael Piggott, Paul Brunton, Maggie Shapley and Marie-Louise Ayres. These people are outstanding intellectuals and cultural caretakers but their work is usually private, quiet, behind-the-scenes. It was good to put them in the spotlight for a change and to raise some important issues about digital records versus paper ones.

Listening to the doco, I cringed a bit at my strong accent – now a fruity Trans-Tasman hybrid of Kiwiana and Ocker – but I also thought about the difficult events that had inspired my original proposal to ABR.

I dug out my application. This is how ‘The Box Room’ proposal began:

Seventy-two years ago Rawinia Bramley married Frank Buchanan. Two years later they had a son, Leo, the first and last child in their family. A week ago, Leo, my father, invited me to look inside “the box” to see if there was something I might want. The box contained tarnished silver wedding presents. None had been used. There were desert spoons and asparagus plates, sugar spoons and cheese knives, butter dishes and milk jugs, biscuit trays and cake slices and a light, squat teapot. My paternal grandmother died 18 years ago and, since then, the silver had sat in the small, musty box room under the eaves on the second floor of my parents’ house. Dad had been “too busy” to go through it but now that he and mum were selling the house and moving somewhere much smaller, time had suddenly been found.

I picked up a slim box covered in faux crocodile skin and opened the latch. “Best wishes from Malcolm, Mable and Family,” the card said. Under the card, sitting on a faded apricot silk lining, were three silver teaspoons, one sugar spoon and four cake forks with a bearded sage wrapped in a toga on top of each. The delicate cutlery was black with neglect. The next box contained thousands of stamps, the one after that hundreds of rugby union souvenir badges, the one after that Royal Albert cups and saucers, the one after that studio portraits of dad as a fat baby in a sailor suit…

The things were beautiful but I was sorry to see them all because I had spent the past week going through the belongings of my maternal grandmother, Norah English, who had died five years ago. There were at least 35 boxes of papers, photographs (“Miss Langford on Grandad’s Horse”) and small objects (a sewing kit, a magnifying glass, a brass bell, rosary beads). Damn all this stuff! Norah’s things had also been sitting in the box room upstairs and in my mother’s sewing room down below. Norah’s personal collection was quite different from Rawinia’s. First of all there was the small matter of her 12 children, all of whom were alarmingly regular correspondents and Grandma had kept every single letter they wrote, and the 43 grandchildren, who also wrote letters. Then there was Grandma’s political activism (“pro-life”, anti-GM food) and her public speaking engagements of which handwritten and typed notes had been preserved, waiting, I think she wished, for a future biographer. There was a ticket, in the “No.1 stand” for the Pope’s visit in 1985 and my grandfather’s First Holy Communion card from 1917 and an invitation to a Bachelors’ Ball at Fitzsimmons’ Hall, Wairio, on 24 June 1910 and the rosary beads and…

Keep, share, describe, sort, file, box, discard, burn – my appraisal turned brutal. I was a callous undertaker. I would bury this corpse. Black bin bags bulged. A skip was ordered. The box room began to empty. Did I do the right thing? How do we honour and care for the memory of our immediate and more distant ancestors within our families, our states, our nation? Whose memory matters, what papers or objects best preserve it and where should these relics be stored? Many families suffer an archive fever similar to ours. But while a family develops its own wonky criteria for deciding what is important how much do we know about the collecting priorities of public institutions that take in personal papers? Is there a connection between private, intimate struggles to store, disperse or destroy the personal belongings of our dead loved ones and what happens in collecting institutions?

I do want to point out that I wasn’t totally brutal with Grandma’s stuff. I sorted out the letters into piles and returned them to my uncles and aunties. Many of them were surprised that Grandma had kept their letters at all. Collecting and preserving is a way of demonstrating love. One of my aunts rang me up, weeping. “I read the letters I wrote from boarding school,” she said. “I had forgotten I was so happy then.”

‘Archive Fever’ will be broadcast again on ABC Radio National this Thursday, 26 September, at 1pm. I offer my sincere thanks to Lyn Gallacher and her colleagues for making the program, to the other guests for their wisdom and expertise and to Gallacher’s incredible aunty, a collector of clothes and cloth nappies. As Michael Piggott told me: “Everything is useful. But you can’t predict uses. You can’t keep everything.”



About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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