Geography in the Archive: Value, Principles and Problems

1732 words (7 pages) Essay in Geography

08/02/20 Geography Reference this

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This essay considers principles and problems of the photographic examples held at the Royal Botanical Gardens that were sent back from South East China by Forrest and Rock. The essay will discuss the conditions of the archives and their management, while also considering the value these archives have for geographical research. The archive is a place for the storing of knowledge but it is not a neutral space as many conceive it to be. Section 1 will be focused on the key themes within archival theory; the archive as a topological site and a site of interpretation, respect des fonds and archival politics. Section 2 concentrates on archive as practice and uses the views of Derrida and Cook to consider this; analysing the issues of the archive with respect to the modern-day interpretation of photos sent back by Rock and Forrest from their journeys plant collecting between 1904 and 1932 in Yunnan province, China.

Section 1 “Archive as Theory”

The archive can be thought of as a physical site for storing records which knowledge claims can then be made from. The word “archive” is derived from the ‘arckheion’ which is a Greek term for describing the location where official documents are retained. Derrida traces this etymology to an important point. Derrida uses this to bind the archive historically to government and law. Miles Ogborn (2003) asks three questions:

  1. What has been gathered and why?
  2. What assumptions underlie its retention?
  3. What is open for consultation? (Ogborn, 2003, p.12)

By using these questions, we can frame archive material and their function. As it suggests, from Derrida, archives were often established by the state, to serve the state’s political needs and organisational culture. This is supported by Mueggler (2011) saying “This is because British imperial power found unity and coherence in an archival myth: the idea that institutions of knowledge production could forge the millions of facts flowing in from all corners of the world into a coherent world.” (Mueggler, 2011, p.45)

In Derrida’s book, Archive fever (1995), he sets out to understand what drives us to collect, organise and conserve the human record. In Archive Fever, Derrida explores how the archive is a topological site of knowledge making. He describes the archive as a physical site where knowledge can be shared. “Derrida emphasis the archive as a site of action” (Withers,2003, p.304). This is important for us to consider because the archive as a topological space according to Osbourne gives it the principle of credibility. (Osbourne, 1999, p.53) The rise of the archive in Europe seems to also coincide with the colonial period of data collection as mentioned above from the Mueggler quote. However, today we are starting to see the rise of the digitalised archive. This is the process of converting the paper documents into a digital, computer-readable format. The digitalised archive material, for example, Pont’s maps in the National Library of Scotland, has changed the site of the archive. Now it has made this knowledge production very different compared to the old archive.

   The Edinburgh Botanical Gardens are a “centre of calculation” (Latour, 1987), where knowledge production is built upon the accumulation of documents and information. In the case of The Botanical Gardens, this accumulation has been global and extensive. Osbourne (1995, p.25) describes the archive as “a centre of interpretation” meaning that for every person they are likely to experience something different. Every person’s interpretation of the archive is a product of their own education and experience. This means that people can form their own knowledge from looking at and studying the same archives. It is important to remember that each person’s interpretation is a product of their “intellectual baggage” which comes back to education and experience. (Baker, 1997, p.238) From this, we can establish the idea that even with the same information people will develop their own unique ideas. This both highlights the abstract nature of the archive and a subjective nature of the material in the archive. This is well summarised in the Foucault’s book The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972)

Archive as Practice

In this section, I will first consider the acquisition policy and the impact that has on the practice of archive. I will then consider the issues of collection management, and finally finish with the substance of the Botanical Gardens because I will be looking at the Botanical Gardens with regard to the photographs that have been collected.

The acquisition policy of the archive is an important part of the archive. The acquisition policy sets the direction for making appraisals and acquisitions while also importantly allocating resources. All archival institutions will find that having a comprehensive acquisition policy will become the backbone around which the institution can acquire holdings. It sets out the parameters of what the archive is able to acquire.

When looking at archive science many have started to start to consider, instead of the content of the archive the process of how the archive was made. This has meant that archivists have begun to think about the archival formation. Considerations such as, what story did the archivist want to tell or an event or place. This can be highlighted by the fact that one of the curators at the botanical gardens had to rescue letters from Forrest and Rock from a fire. Ketelaar’s (2001) draws on the idea that when you take a photo you are not just a recording but actually is itself creating an “event”. Cook supported this by saying “everything is shaped, presented, represented, re-presented, symbolized, signified, signed, constructed by the speaker, photographer, writer, for a set purpose.’’ (Cook, 2001:7) This means that when the archivist is choosing what to include in the archive, only a very small amount is included within the files. This means that you only get a similar size to the event, you only get a tiny amount of the actual event is recorded. One of the problems that this creates is that we are not able to see an accurate representation of the whole story of the past. Ketelaar said that “we are both consciously and unconsciously choosing to consider something worth archiving.” (Ketelaar,2001, p.132) This highlights the idea that the archivist is an integral part of the construction of the archive. The story within the archive is the one that has been chosen to be told by the curator of the archive.

An important viewpoint to consider is the postmodernist shift which some archivists fear has started to attack their profession. The postmodern rhetoric about archivists insists that reflexivity and accountability are insisted on within the profession. This discourse has arisen from the concept that political archival practice has long gone unchallenged under the pretence of a custodian of a naturally accumulating knowledge forming documents.

Finally, for this, I will be looking at the photographs that Forrest and Rock sent back from South East China about their findings and how these were and still are interpreted. In Gillian Rose’s paper on Practising photography: an archive, a study, some photographs and a researcher she begins with the assumption that the meanings of a photograph are established through how we use it. This means that photos often can mean different things to each person. Rose focuses on how the relationship between the historical geographers, in this case, Forrest and Rock and the photographer and subject of the photograph. Rose’s paper shows us that we need to give more consideration to the contemporary research practice in relation to historical photographs.

From Rose’s paper, she suggests that we should consider how the removal of the photograph from its context changes the meaning of that photo. We saw during our trip to the Botanical Gardens that the photos did not necessarily turn up in the order that they were sent. Rose also suggests that photographs cannot be used as neutral evidence to judge how things looked or how they were interpreted. This is because photographs have complex practices of observation, production, reproduction and display (Rose, 2000, p.556). thereby showing us that the way we interpret photographs is actually a result of the production and interpretation of the person who actually took the photograph. This means that as mentioned above the subjective nature of the interpretation of the archive will have a large effect convincing us that actually photographs are indeed not neutral spaces by any means.

Overall this essay is an attempt to show how through discursive research of the archive that photographs should not just be taken on their face value. Much of the available literature suggests to us that as archives are so subjective that photos especially are insufficient in allowing us a clear and full representation of the past. From the above, it has meant that I feel that looking at the use of photographs in the archives is an important factor to consider within research and how their digitisation will also impact this interpretation.


  • Baker, A. R. H. (1997) ‘“The dead don’t answer questionnaires”: researching and writing historical geography, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 21, 231–43.
  • Cook T (2001) ‘Archival sciences and postmodernism: new formulations for old concepts’ Archival Science 1, 3-24.
  • Cook T (2013) ‘Evidence, memory, identity, and community: four shifting archival paradigms’, Archival Science 13, 95-120.
  • Derrida, J (1996) Archive fever: A Freudian impression trans. E. Prenowitz University of Chicago Press,
  • Foucault, M. 1972 The Archaeology of Knowledge Tavistock, London
  • Ketelaar, E. (2001) ‘Tacit narratives: the meaning of archives’, Archival Science 1, 131–41.
  • Latour, B. (1987) Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes, Open University. [Chapter 6: Centres of Calculation]
  • Ogborn, M. 2003 Knowledge is power: using archival research to interpret state formation, in A Blunt, P Gruffudd, J May, M Ogborn and D Pinder (eds), Cultural Geography in Practice Arnold: London, 9-20 
  • Osborne, T. (1999). The ordinariness of the archive. History of the Human Sciences, 12(2), 51-64.
  • Rose, G. (2000). Practising photography: an archive, a study, some photographs and a researcher. Journal of Historical Geography, 26(4), 555-571.
  • Withers, C. W. J. (2002) Constructing the geographical archive Area 34 (3), 303-11,
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