Archivists on the Issues: Archives as Art, Part 1

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. This is part 1 of a 2-part essay.

To conclude my blog series about archives as prominent cultural and artistic influences, I’ll turn to the visual arts, a broad and varied category, to be sure. As an archivist at an art museum, I am highly aware of the importance institutional archives can have within museums as historical records of the museum itself, or as repositories for artists’ archives, but there are also countless examples of archives, archival materials, and archival practices as major forces within an artwork, or the artwork itself.

To consider the archive as an artistic medium in and of itself, it is helpful to begin with James O’Toole’s essay, “The Symbolic Significance of Archives,” an important piece of writing by an archivist on the aesthetic and transformative qualities inherent in the role of some documents. His examination of archives as symbolic entities casts light on a side of the archival profession that had not yet been given much attention by archivists themselves, although many visual artists have been working in “the archival mode” since the early 20th century. Archivists are trained to care for records of enduring value and emphasis is placed on “utilitarian motivations for the making of written records” [1]. O’Toole begins his discussion with an invocation of Frank Burke’s 1981 essay, “The Future Course of Archival Theory in the United States,” in which he provokes archivists to consider archives beyond their practical operations and use, and to ask larger, more philosophical questions of the profession, such as “what is the motivation for the act” of recordkeeping and making.

O’Toole’s very question suggests that there is more to records than their practical uses, however dismissed these uses may have been by the majority of archivists who agreed with Lester Cappon’s conjecture that there is nothing to theorize about; the job of the archivist is to “shuffle the damn papers.”[2] Indeed, the conversation about archival theory that Burke began in the late 20th century seems to have caused some rancor among many archivists who stick firmly to the school of thought that archival records are purely practical. This, O’Toole argues extensively, excludes the role of archives and records as symbolic objects. By examining examples from history, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Domesday Book, O’Toole demonstrates the manner in which a document can change from being a record that is useful in the traditional sense, into a record whose use extends beyond practicality and conveys meaning symbolically. Since the very essence of an archival document lies in its having transitioned from primary to secondary use, it follows that the secondary use is not necessarily always going to be practical in the evidentiary sense.  O’Toole’s discussion concludes, significantly, by affirming that archival records can have both practical and symbolic uses; one side is not more important than the other, and if we value archives and archival materials solely for their practical features, we are missing half the picture.

In the twentieth century, the use of archival materials as artistic media became increasingly popular, particularly with the arrival of conceptual art and structuralism on the scene. In her seminal lecture, A Voyage on the North Sea” Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, art critic and professor of art history at Columbia University, Rosalind Krauss presents a discussion of art that does not belong to classical modes and mediums like painting and sculpture, but incorporates any number of expressive modes.[5]  She describes a break from traditional classifications and a movement toward mixed media, video art, installations, readymades (like those made by Marcel Duchamp), collections, and conceptual art. The latter might even lack physical form; the ideas and contextual performance are the artwork.

Krauss focuses on the work of Belgian poet and artist Marcel Broodthaers, who created a fictitious museum called “The Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Division” around which he built collections of objects, such as an installation of stuffed eagles and other objects pertaining to the eagle, much like one might see presented in a natural history museum. Each object is labeled, not with information about its species, but with the admission (joke?): “This Is Not a Work of Art.” Broodtaears picks up where Duchamp left off, creating an imaginary museum, structured around readymades and antiquated modes of display, poking fun at art world expectations and conventions. Broodthaers’ work is often referred to as “institutional critique,” a form that attempts to call out the inner workings of establishments such as the museum and archive; official spaces that command respect, embody some degree of power (financial, intellectual), and authority.

This shift has made the work of many contemporary artists possible such as the work of Lebanese-American artist, Walid Raad. While Broodthaers re-envisions the colonialist structure that names, categorizes and capitalizes upon fine arts, Raad reimagines the archive as a structure wherein truth is not tied to fact while still relying on archives’ hydra-like power to tell many stories at once.


[1] O’Toole, James. “The Symbolic Significance of Archives,” The American Archivist, 1982, 234-255

[2] Ibid., 235

[3] Craig and O’Toole, 98

[4] Ibid., 98

[5] Krauss, Rosalind, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 5


One thought on “Archivists on the Issues: Archives as Art, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Archivists on the Issues: Archives as Art | archivefutures

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