ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Histories, Academic and Public

Issues in Treating the Visual as an Archive

Changes in historiography and historical methods challenged the professional historian’s obsession with the state archive from the late 19th century, but the distance between academic and public histories continued to grow wider in the 20th century. The possibility of bringing public and academic histories together to make history-writing a meaningful activity for both the public and the historian has been done by treating the visual as an archive which no historian can ignore in the age of smartphones, internet and fake news. By imaginatively integrating the visual and literary archives, the historian can reclaim a social relevance denied to him by the very practice of professional academic history.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the National Seminar titled “Archives and Archiving: A Critical Stock-taking,” 22–24 August 2017, Department of History, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune. Comments by the seminar participants and the anonymous referee are gratefully acknowldeged. The usual disclaimer applies.

This article explores the possibility of bridging the gap between academic and public history with reference to a creative interaction between the historian and the visual archive. Since the visual archive is as old as the human narration of the past, can or should the historians take it seriously in the writing of integral history? The answer to this question necessitates a review of the concept of an archive to begin with. While it is true that history is impossible without an archive, what comprises a historian’s archive is difficult to say. Unless of course, following the method of Leopold von Ranke, the archive is defined in the terms laid down by the modern state and its historians. According to these terms, the history archive is strictly official, enclosed in a building and accessible to professional historians. This definition has held its ground, generally speaking, since the 19th century when history became a modern discipline. But, this definition is not sacrosanct, although no history is possible without an archive.

Since the 19th century at least the exponential growth of the media has widened the distance between professional and public histories. The discipline of history emerged in the 19th century when the rise of the nation states in Europe coincided with the professionalisation and institutionalisation of remembering and reproducing the past, an elegant task once known as ars historica in the period of the Renaissance. Indeed, Ranke’s statist definition of facts and documents, on which the foundation of modern historio­graphy continues to rest, would have made little sense to Herodotus and Ibn Khaldun, not to speak of numerous others who followed in the footsteps of these inspiring men. For instance, Karl Marx and Friederich Engels had disdain for the professional historians of their time. To the Marxists, history meant economic and social history and a study of class struggle. Feminists describe the Ranke methods patriarchal because he spoke of the historian, as a hero, working amongst princesses “under a curse” and “needing to be saved” from the archive (Gunn and Faire 2012: 17). The historian was the male subject, and the source a female object which derived agency only through the daredevilry of the male scholar. Nevertheless, due to changes in history, the rise of new sub­jects and concomitant developments in historiography, the definition of historical sources and the archives began to change in the early decades of the 20th century.

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Updated On : 23rd Dec, 2018
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