Entropy, memory and archives

Entropy ensues, an inevitable fall to absolute zero, to an inescapable end, the death of all things.

These are just some of the ‘cheery’ thoughts bubbling away in my head recently. Some time ago a philosophical friend asked me what the point of maintaining an archive was. He reminded me that everything will eventually wither, will turn to dust.  In his opinion an archive was an absurdity, perhaps even a perversity.

I fumble for some meaning, some principles to justify the maintenance of our archive against this entropy, this natural tendency for material to fall into chaos. And I keep coming back to the idea of memory, to the facility for recollection and reflection. Not nostalgia, the bearing of a painful yearning for the past, not a sentimental reverie of a long gone golden age. What I’m thinking of is a more robust and vital interaction with the past through the materials preserved in the archive. As individuals without memory who are we? As a community without the capacity to recall, to arouse, to summon, to remember, we would fall into forgetfulness and inaction. And who would we be?

Institutions will always change, sometimes slowly and subtly or sometimes quickly through deliberate decisions. Re-branding or root and branch reorganisation can cover tracks and often any surviving heritage is left to fend for itself in the rush to establish a newer order. But along with change there is also continuity, manifested in the buildings, the people and the community of our institutions. We seek balance.

I trained as a Painter, trying to capture bits of the world in two dimensions on a canvas, well suited then to absurdity and even perversity. Painting can be said to be an action, an injection of energy, an attempt to capture the memory of things. And so it is with an archive faced with the deterioration of materials, with entropy, we inject more energy, we introduce buffers, we convert to another format and we adjust the environment. We seek a balance. Often these memories  intersect  with one of us. A researcher, a historian, a student interacting with a madly preserved bit of information and that encounter is remembered, may lead to a narrative, to an analysis, to a history, to an understanding or even a philosophy that can last for…well lets be absurd and say…forever.

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