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Jan 2, 2005 3:44 am

Violent Archives

Via HNN's Breaking News comes a story of municipal governments taking archives much more seriously than usual: Spanish authorities have ruled that documents seized by Franco's forces should be returned to their original municipalities; Salamancan leaders, pro-Franco still, have barricaded the streets and vowed to fight for their right to maintain those archives [emphasis added]:

"We are on the alert and we will mobilise because this is a subject that is lodged deep in our heart ... We will raise our cudgels to prevent this unprecedented cultural villainy," Mr Lanzarote said, using an ancient discourse of confrontation that precedes the Civil War by several centuries. He declined to elaborate on how the city's authorities planned to prevent the archives being removed.
If Catalonia reclaimed its files, other regions would want theirs too, Mr Lanzarote said, and Salamanca's archive would be violently dismembered,"because there's no collection in the world, neither in Spain or any European country [ed. -- that's not the whole world, is it?], that has been won peacefully, not even a miserable stamp collection."
Even fascists (he's pro-Franco; I'm not projecting) sometimes get it right, or at least partly right. Some fields are richer in pillage than others: Chinese historians, in particular, have to contend with sources that were mostly
  • looted from China by Japan
  • dragged from China to Taiwan by the Nationalists
  • purchased at fire-sale prices by Westeners during China's decades of disorder and poverty
  • collected forcibly by Communist Chinese institutions, what they didn't burn as anti-proletarian (which is why we forgive -- even give thanks for -- the previous categories)
Sometimes looting is another form of preservation: the Hague conventions we spent so much time debating after the invasion of Iraq even make some allowance for the fact that an occupying power might justifiably relocate cultural treasures to preserve them.

Before that, conquerers' transfer of wealth, including knowledge and art, was a part of the process of historical change: Gregory Guzman, in"Were the Barbarians a Negative or Positive Factor in Ancient and Medieval History?" argues that they were mostly positive historical actors, sweeping away defunct institutions, reinvigorating decadent societies and transfering technology and wealth from stagnating regions to underdeveloped ones. I think he understates the destructive aspect of these conquests, and overstates the importance of the difference between sudden, violent technology transfers and gradual, peaceful knowledge spread. But anyone who studies early societies has to contend with the fact that a notable portion of the cultural heritage is probably the result of pillage, in both directions. Japan's rich pottery tradition and early modern Confucianism, for example, are a direct result of Japan's invasions of Korea in the 1590s: Hideyoshi failed to conquer China, which was his aim, but his samurai armies brought back valuable slaves and sources.

Now, though, we are engaged in a massive rectification campaign. World-wide, archivists and curators are reexamining their collections (sometimes under intense pressure) and trying to distinguish those items which are of known and dubious or illegitimate provenance, and things are trickling back to Holocaust victims' families, indigenous groups, etc. This raises very tricky questions of property rights, individual and group inheritances, evidence and who presumptions favor. There is a loss, sometimes, in public or scholarly access, in preservation quality, etc.

I admit that, as an historian, my first inclination is to preserve collections over breaking them up, preserve access instead of reversions to private (or tribal) ownership, to emphasize preservation over risking degradation (e.g. the Elgin Marbles) through transport. That a bad act sometimes has a decent result ... well, I'll let the ethicists puzzle it out; that rectifying a bad act can have negative consequences.... never mind.

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