Bonusläsning: Archive fever

Laboratorium bjuder på lite bonusläsning i form av ett studentarbete från Aalto-universitetet. Artikeln skrevs som en del av en kurs inom konst och design 2019 som hette ”Other Pasts” och som avslutades med en utställning:

Amelie Scharffetter, Eirunn Kvalnes, Tove Ørsted


What makes an archive? Is it the white gloves, the endless rows of metal shelves or the collections of meta-data sheets? For this project Amelie Scharffetter and Eirunn Kvalnes, MA students in Visual Communication at Aalto-University, explored the school’s archives together with archivist Tove Ørsted who patiently answered all questions that arose during the visits touching on topics such as the ever expanding archive, the idea of subjectivity, the very need to collect, archive, categorise and the archivist as curator. The result is a publication that documents the findings in text and photography accompanied by an exhibition of selected objects from the archive.

”The technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event.”

Jacques Derrida

E: We were thinking we could start by talking a bit about the Aalto Archive. What was the main purpose of this specific archive?

T: Well, we collect the history of the university. In different senses – the documents of the students, but also the history and events of the people in Aalto, both students and professors. Everything from the teaching methods to the students work. Part of it is work that we have to do, like documenting and saving students grades and students programs. These are documents that we have to be able to dig up if someone asks us to.

E: Do you think the purpose of the archive changes with time?

T: I think maybe there is a stronger interest in history now in general, and people are getting maybe a bit nostalgic, or want to know more about all sorts of different things. Both related to the history of the university, but also in general in archives and museums worldwide. This might be a bit because of digitalization – the archive content is more accessible, so people realize what kinds of materials there are, and out of this arises more interest. With more interest, there will be more materials collected. It creates this sort of circle, which feeds itself.

E: Do you have any favourites in the archive? A favourite object?

T: I am a photo archivist, and I am mainly interested in the photographs and the stories they tell. When it comes to photographs in the archive, I am mostly interested in photographs that document student life, pictures that show the students making whatever they are making – or the classroom, when the professors and the students are together. You can see the concentrated faces when they are making something, even though you don’t know what the result of that might be.

E: Maybe because these photos tell more about the time these things were made in and the wider context of when the photograph was taken, rather than the thing they are making?

A: Yes, and I think, you can create a story around a student when you see these images, right?

T: Exactly, and what I think is maybe most fascinating, is to see the earlier students and what they do and then looking at the students today and realising that they are the same. And that’s not always an easy connection to make – because of the photographs that are black and white for example – you can try to colourise them but this is hard work, to get it really accurate. Maybe it’s easier to make modern photographs black and white to visualise the connection.

“We are all ‘en mal d’archive’: in need of archives … [we] burn with a passion never to cease searching for the archive right where it slips away … [we] have a compulsive, repetitive and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return of the most archaic place of absolute beginning.”

Jaques Derrida

E: While working on this project in the past weeks we have talked a lot about how the meanings of archives change. The philosopher Derrida writes about what he calls mal d’archives, a search for unity, search for the original context of an object. However it is somehow never really possible to return to the actual original – we always create this interpretation or new context ourselves. How do you feel about this as an archivist? Do you feel a sort of responsibility to preserve the original context?

T: Yes. I think most archivists biggest fear is to let their archive material just fly away freely. This is for example what happens with digitalization. A picture can be taken away from its context, and it can be presented as anything. And even though we try and hope that people would refer to the archive or the source, people tend not to do that. Maybe the first user will, but the second user who uses this material further will not refer to the archive. Archival materials travel and have their own life and the archivist just has to make peace with that. But we would love, of course, that the information could somehow travel with it.

E: Somehow you can think of an archive as a repository for memories, a way of collecting memories. And if we think of it that way, one could say that the selection of the objects in the archive also determines what is remembered and what is forgotten. How do you choose or prioritize what objects get to enter the archive and what objects stays outside of it?

T: We have to have quite strict rules, otherwise we have to just take everything. Because it’s very hard to get rid of things as well, to let things go. And we realize that whatever we as archivists find interesting or not interesting, could be totally the other way around for someone else. Even the garbage can be interesting for someone. So you can’t really throw out anything, because the thing you throw out might just be the thing someone is looking for. So that’s a dilemma! We can’t collect everything. So, in every archive, there is a structure and a priority list, showing the purpose of this archive. For instance in the Aalto archive, it has to have to do in some way or the other with the university.

For example, let’s say, Alvar Aalto, who was a student here. If we find student works of his, it would be completely natural for the material to be here. If we somehow find something else, for example drawings of a building he made later on, we would give it to the Architecture Museum or the Alvar Aalto Foundation. Or some other archive that has the purpose to collect that. And sometimes, we can recognize copies, and we try not to collect those either.

A: We saw and went through one of those cartons today that still needs to be archived. How do you decide there? Would you throw away the whole box altogether or do you keep parts of it, for example particular photographs or documents?

T: Well, it depends on the materials. For examples CD’s: If we have collected the content of the CD to a server, to a safe place, we wouldn’t keep the CD’s anymore. In a couple of years it’s not going to be useful anyway. It’s a really hard decision to make, what to keep and what to throw away. We don’t have space for everything. Sometimes we just throw away the box, and keep the insides and put them in smarter boxes that take up less space. But also in those cases it loses a bit of the original context, because it was presented in a particular way to begin with.

E: I guess the archive in that way is also an archive of different formats of information. We saw these tiny mini-discs in the archive today which are in a format that is impossible to read now, but they are somehow still there.

T: Yes, and if we would have unlimited resources we would find a way to open them, see what’s there and convert the information and all that.

E: We have also been talking a lot about the dilemma of the ever expanding and never ending archive. The archive houses a massive collection of archival objects and documents – it is so big. And somehow things just keep piling up.

A: Yes, I imagine there are new things coming into the archive as we speak. You just mentioned that a way to work around this sometimes, is just to put things into smaller boxes. How do you deal with this expanding process as a whole?

T: Well, for example, you saw these fashion dresses we have in the archive, from the 90’s. It just happens that some of the professors gave them to us in good shape with good data, and so we have just kept them since then. But dresses are made every year, a lot of them. So now we have to trust that the departments photograph their own student works and that at some point these digital photographs end up in the archive. We cannot force this onto any of the departments. Some of them are probably going to do this very structurally, while some might not do that at all.

A: So for example our department, Visual Communication Design, has almost better chances to have originals in the archive given the dimensions and formats we work with. If I made a book or a poster, the chances are higher to make the cut, whereas, a big fashion dress or a coat or a whole collection will take up so much space so that you cannot hold onto it in the same way.

T: That’s true. But they might have been photographed. And if they have been in an exhibition, then the exhibition might have been photographed by the communication services at Aalto, and all the photographs from them are going to end up in the archive at some point.

A: But those are often digital? Then you don’t have the problem of the actual space. Is a problem of space something that you’re facing at the moment? That you feel like you could use another room?

T: Actually, we had that discussion four years ago, when all the different campuses started moving to Otaniemi campus. We had a dilemma, because when they built these new buildings, the archives were not included in the plan. It was all about education, and archiving is not considered part of that. So there was a discussion about what to do, whether we should build another magazine or not. We would have to dig up a cellar, and make it safe. It would cost millions. Or, we could start digitizing. It was quite a big task but we actually ended up digitizing more than 50 000 master theses and dissertations, and 100 000 image slides to save space. We have room to grow now because of this digitization project. And at the same time all these materials are soon available online which is truly great!

A: Would you say then that now, when you select objects that are going into the physical archive, prioritise those that have a tactile element to it? Because a thesis can be digitised right from the beginning, it does not even need to be printed. But what about a vase? Is this an issue that you have been facing? Or are you still trying to keep up with all that is already there?

T: I suspect we are going in the direction that we’re not going to have that many analogue objects. So if the object is going to end up in the archive, there has to be some sort of special reason for it. Otherwise, it would be filled up in a month, because there is so much stuff produced in Aalto, in all the departments all the time. So it would have to be some sort of small collection that someone already collected during some period of time, that would be so nicely done and have all the meta-data so that we just couldn’t refuse to take it. But we never go around and search for specific objects that we pick for the archive. This is not what we do. We just deal with things at the moment that have ended up at our doorstep. At that point we make the decision. What is this? Why is it here? Is this the right place for it?

“There is no one fixed meaning of any archival document: we may know the action that created the trace, but its present and future meanings can never be fixed.”

Jacques Derrida

E: So you don’t actively work to find things for the archive. It is more a matter of dealing with the things that end up in the archive in a way?

T: Yes. It’s not…you could call it…active archiving.

A: That’s so interesting, if you think about originality and context. Let’s say we have some ceramics and a teacher goes through a selection process deciding that this specific group of ceramics is worth taking into the archive. Then, you take that over. Would you keep the same narrative as the person who brought you the collection? So the way they archived it, or, organized it. Would you keep that same organization or would you rather categorize it by your own system of priorities?

T: We always have to think of it right from the beginning when anything comes in. And with the new methods of databases and cataloging online, in does not really matter what order it is kept in the archive. Because they are searchable and they can be ordered in which ever way in the database, on the computer.

E: How do you decide on the meta-data for an object? Do you collect everything there is, or are there some types of information that are more important?

T: We collect everything that is there. And we don’t usually have any resources to put in more data than what we have, to research it and find out more. So one criteria for anything that comes to the archive would be that there is at least some sort of meta-data connected to the objects. Because if we don’t know at all by whom or what or from what time it is, then there is no use in having it in the archive. If it is nameless or has unknown data, no one is going to find it.

A: Can you tell us a little bit more about meta-data? What does it actually mean? When you for example have a sculpture, how do you decide on the meta-data? What is meta-data?

T: Well, we have a priority list of meta-data. The most important characteristics would be for example the year of origin, and the creator. If it’s photographed, then the photographers name. The collection, if it is part of something, like a school department, or a course. The descriptive meta-data, whether it’s blue or how big, is not as important. Even if we have it in our hands, we could potentially measure it and put this data in the database, but that is extra work that we don’t have time to do. But we have some catalogues in the archive that were made very neatly. For example some ceramics catalogues, where they included all sorts of data on what kind of material it is, what size, and maybe a little sketch of what each object looks like.

E: We were wondering if you have any particular tools you use when you are handling the archive? Or any processes or tools you use in order to preserve the materials and objects as good as possible?

T: Like, if we do any conservation? Not any more than making sure that an object is not surrounded by materials that could possibly harm it. If it is in a normal envelope for a post office, it has to be taken out of that and put into an envelope that is made out of archival materials that are not toxic in any way, or have any glues or metal parts or something else that is going to decay. But we don’t do any more than that. We don’t really have the facilities to do any conservation.

A: When we talk about tools, you talked a bit about these priority lists. Maybe you could say that you use those as tools as well? Let’s say a new box of archival material arrives at your doorstep. Then you have a priority list on how to use the meta-data, how to prioritize what goes in to the archive. Is there something else in the whole approach, in the whole process of archiving, that you are using that we might not be aware of?

T: It could be for example that we make the decision right away that we are going to scan it or digitize it. If it feels like it’s an interesting or valuable object. If there for example is a box that contains both documents and photography, we might decide that we are going to separate them, and put them in different parts of the archive. Or we might decide that they should stay together, because if they are separated, one might look only at the documents and not realize that there are photographs that could actually give more insight to the material. It is sometimes hard to make these decisions on what is the best way to do this.

A: It sounds as if there is a fair bit of intuition involved in the archiving process. You keep lists and have those tools, to somehow maintain a degree of objectivity, but there is always an aspect of subjectivity in archiving, isn’t there?

T: Yes. And it is also because the archive has grown rapidly, especially the last years, because of the campuses that are now combined. So we are still in the process of organizing it in a new, logical way. The archives have been separate from each other, and now they are combined. The way the archives have been organized in the different schools, have been quite different.

E: You mentioned earlier that if there have been different people archiving the same material over the years, the way it is archived depends on each person. So the archival formats and language also change, with time?

T: Definitely. It is typical for archives that there is often just one person who knows everything about this particular archive. This is just what happens, because it is really hard to know all the insides of an archive. Like you have experienced when visiting the Aalto archive, it’s massive. When you go into an archive, it’s grey and brown and with all these closed boxes. You don’t really get any clues on what’s actually on the inside.

A: Yes, so there is always this surprise element to it, right? Do you remember an instance when you opened a box and you were really surprised at what you found?

T: I get a lot of those. It is also because it is student works. And students somehow think in their own ways. This has been a constant! If you are in your 20’s and you are free to do something creative, it’s always going to have some sort of element of surprise. Maybe I’m not so surprised anymore, because there is really an element of surprise all the time!

E: I was thinking, one thing is to decide on what get to enter the archive, but how do you decide what gets to be made public? If you publish something from the archive for example, or make an exhibition, what does this process look like?

T: We have been thinking about that, a lot. Because it’s a shame if we couldn’t show what the students have been doing throughout the years, but of course there is an element of copyright. Also the fact that, as an artist today for example, you might not be so proud of what you did as a student. You might not be so happy if you find your old student work has been made public. So we try to make some kind of a compromise, like not making public any recent work, if the maker has not given the permission to do so. We publish works with materials up until the 80’s, but with all rights reserved, so people are not allowed to use them in any way.

A: You have that distance, right? I can see that. I would hate to see my portfolio from last year get published. Whereas maybe in ten years I might be rather nostalgic about that.

T: Yes. But otherwise we just make sure to follow the law, and what it says about publishing.

A: And how about exhibitions? You have this enormous archive at your disposal . And then you have exhibition spaces like the one in the Learning Centre. How does the process work?

T: This depends on a lot of different factors, but it often is a happy coincidence. Like for example, this discussion I am having now with you. You might have found something in the archive that positively surprised you or you found some part of the archive particularly beautiful or interesting. Then I would sit down with the other archivists and tell them about your findings, and then we might decide to put this on display.

A: So it helps when you get feedback from people visiting the archive?

T: Yes and that is kind of the purpose, that we could lift up things that could somehow get people interested in the archive.

A: Let’s say there are no students or people coming and giving you any feedback, is it then up to you to decide what is put on display? Or does another body in Aalto dictate, for example, now we should show a collection of ceramics. This is all up to you?

T: Yes, that’s right.

A: So you have this kind of curatorial practice as well, then? Do you like that part?

T: Yes. And I enjoy it especially when there is a project like yours, where we don’t make the choices.

One thing I came to think of about the selection process. We also want to give more responsibility to the students themselves. Often a students’ written work goes hand in hand with the physical objects they made, especially in the department of arts. But because it is not possible for us to archive all those objects, we now ask the students to document their own artifact and put it as a voluntary attachment to their final work. That way, we can guarantee a continuously growing archive of student work that covers both the written and the physical outcomes.

A: Like more of a visual archive, instead of just the words? So Eirunn and me could design a little publication about this project that we have done with you and it could potentially be something that we hand in to the archive?

T: Yes, absolutely!

E: An archive inside the archive, in a way.

T: Definitely. Because reusing the archive is one of the key purposes of having an archive. That it is reused in new ways. So, everything that you do is somehow the purpose of having the archive.

E: It’s almost like it is a way of keeping the archive alive?

T: Exactly. It is like a contact between students that used to be here, with students that are here today.

A: Did you recognize any change in the interest for the archive? I for example find that now that we live in the digital age, I have this need for tactility. Do you feel, because of the digitization, that it is easier now to access an archive, that people come to visit the archive more often?

T: Yes, this goes hand in hand with realizing that these artifacts exist. People would not know about them if they were not able to find the digitized version online. Sometimes we digitize to keep the original safe, like the hand drawings you saw earlier. They are really hard to access now because they are archived carefully in silk paper. They were never really meant to be opened again, if not for very special occasions. Because they are digitized and available online people can look at them digitally and there is no need to touch the originals. But in the end, people want to see the original anyway. And I understand that. It is not the same as the digital version.

A: Yes, we are so bombarded by digital images all day. It feels very special to go to this place. An archive embodies some sort of sacred atmosphere, a specific feeling to it. It has a certain temperature, it has these cabinets that you normally don’t see, it has the bubble wrap and closed up boxes. It sparks curiosity in us. That is so interesting in an age where the focus lies on the instant and a lot of things somehow reveal themselves to you rather fast. In the archive you have to go through everything, if you are looking for something particular it really could take hours to find just the right thing.

E: But that is somehow part of it right? It is the tempo, the pace of the archive.

T: Exactly.

A: Time changes when you are in the archive?

T: Yes, but no one would say that some 10 or 20 years ago. The tempo was slow everywhere back then!

A: Has your job as an archivist somehow influenced the way you look at the things you have at home? We were talking about this archive fever that Derrida writes about, this obsession with collecting. Not only by buying new clothes and these things but also what seems to me the obsessive act of collecting memories with our phone cameras. Are you somehow more selective?

T: Not necessarily. I take photographs like everyone else, and just in case I take ten instead of only one. But I am not worried about that, I think technology is going to solve these problems for us. It will help us combine several pictures into one, or analyse the content and organize it for us. The technology is going to be better and better. I don’t think that the amount of data will be a problem. But, every time people are for example, moving and tidying up their drawers or their cellar, throwing away everything they don’t need, discarding letters or all different sorts of objects, I almost have a bit of a hard time to breathe. Because there is so much there! People finding their own lives not interesting. But everyone’s’ life is potentially fascinating and worth archiving.


All photos are from the Aalto-University archive

Breakell, S. 2008. Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive, in Tate Papers, no.9.

Derrida, J. 1996. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.

Ernst, W. 2004. The Archive as Metaphor: From Archival Space to Archival Time.

Ernsten, C. 2016. Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist. Archipelago Volume 15.

Foster, H. 2004.  An Archival Impulse

Ketelaar, E. 2001. Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives, in Archival Science 1, 131-141.

Obrist. H. U. 2014. Ways of Curating.

Schuppert, M. & M. Fagerholm. 2014. Archive Play. de Waal, E. & M. Dittmer. 2016. W is for White: mono.kultur nr. 40.