Hidden World: Visiting The British Colonial Archives

Our research trip to England was my first time doing archival research with primary documents. I’ve read a fair number of excellent articles about working with visual archives (Alan Sekula’s 1986, “The Body and the Archive” being the most famous), but I was still surprised to discover how awkward the process actually is. Visiting any archive usually requires some kind of advanced appointment for which you have to describe your project and tell the archivist which of their materials you intend to look at. This requires advanced knowledge about the nature of the archives and what materials they have – all well and good if you can simply hop on the web and search their archives for yourself, but quite difficult with visual archives.

Many visual archives are offline. One place we visited had a two inch thick sheaf of handwritten notes about their photographs. Two others had computerized databases, but you can only access those databases if you are physically sitting in front of the computer in their office – something that they don’t normally let anyone do. That’s right, unless you are lucky (as I was in one case), you aren’t even allowed to use the database yourself! But I’m jumping ahead of myself – we haven’t even gotten in the door yet. We are still in the Catch-22 position of telling the archivist what materials we want to use without really knowing what materials they have. You might be able to find some kind of broad statement about the nature of their collection, and if you say something vague about the connection between your research and this collection the archivist will do a search themselves before setting up an appointment. Of course, having been vague, it will be a vague search, and they will tell you that they don’t have anything and you probably shouldn’t come. And they are probably correct because some archives charge a lot of money to get in and access the collection. That’s because an archivist will have to help you get out and put away any material you ask to see. Fees can range from $30 to $100 a day, or even higher for some film archives.

In our case we are looking for images of a group of people who went by many different ethnic names with many different spellings: Bhat, Bhantu, Sansi, Sansees, Kanjars, Kanjar-bhat, Adodias, etc. all refer to basically the same ethnic group. Even worse, they might simply be listed as “street performers”, “convicts,” or “vagrants” depending on the context in which their image was taken. As nomads they could also have been just about anywhere in South Asia. And with many archives the pictures are probably not individually labeled at all, but are simply in a big box of photos according to who took it: the name of a missionary, missionary society, or colonial official, etc. So good luck telling the archivist which keywords you want to use. What we wanted was the archivist to explain to us the nature of the collection and how it was organized so that we could zero in on potentially useful documents and spend our time in the most efficient manner possible. What the archivists wanted, on the other hand, was for you to already know which of their pictures you wanted to use. Of course, once we explained everything, they were usually quite helpful, but it did take a while to convince them that we weren’t wasting everyone’s time.

Once in the door you will likely have the best luck with photographs that are collected together with text – such as those found in old books or manuscripts. That is because the books and manuscripts provide textual clues as the contents of the photographs, and are probably indexed – even computer searchable. Photographs, however, are a very different matter. As I said, even if they have a database you are probably not allowed to use it yourself. This is exceedingly frustrating for someone used to trying various odd search combinations on Google to find what they want.

Having (mistakenly) been given access to one such database I have some theories as to why this might be the case: First, archivists are embarrassed about how poor their records are. Much of the keyword entry is done by volunteers, and these volunteers don’t know the difference between North and South India, not to mention between a Bhantu and and Bantu. One archivist told me that she had to personally edit out racist entries by some of her volunteers. This is a difficult problem. Google is now trying to tackle this problem by putting a game online where two people tag the same photo in real time and get points for matching keywords. Actually, Modonna was the first to try something like this, having her fans tag her huge archive of unlabeled photos. A second problem is more mundane: the databases are written using old software and it is very easy to switch from browsing the data to actually editing it, a very risky proposition. And, finally, the vast majority of material still hasn’t been archived.

Another explanation is that these problems are unique to the British archives. There does seem to be a certain ambivalence in England to examining their colonial past. People told us that the left is embarrassed by it and the right nostalgic, so nobody wants to look at it too closely. I’ve also heard people complain that British computer and internet use lags behind other developed countries. The Library of Congress, for instance, has fantastic image archives, much of which are up online. And we even found pictures of Sansis (spelled “Sanseeas”) at the New York Public Library

Once you do get a hold of some useful photos you are then stuck with another problem. While some archives are generous about letting you snap a picture with your digital camera, others do not, and scanning fees can be exorbitant. I wouldn’t mind so much if they would use the money to create an electronic copy which would be available to everyone online, but when they say scanning they just mean a fancy photocopy which doesn’t damage the original document. Not being able to take your own digital image means that you have to keep meticulous written records describing each photo you found so that you can relocate it later on if you decide it is something worth copying.

Still, despite how cumbersome this process is, I found that I really enjoyed spending my days snooping around these dusty archives. I would almost consider becoming a historian were it not for one problem – I can’t read other people’s handwriting. The letters and journals of various colonial officers seemed to have been written by a seismograph rather than by a human hand. I really don’t know how historians do it without going blind.

Did we find what we were looking for? Some. We were really hoping for some film footage, or photos of the Chharas themselves, but we found images from other “Criminal Tribe” settlements that we might be able to use. More importantly, we found key documents about the history of the Chhara settlement that are very useful to the Chharas (both because they have lost any record of their own history, and because they are trying to claim the land on which their settlement had been built), and may lead us to additional sources of photos. We now have the names of the colonial officers who ran the settlement, so we can perhaps contact their families directly to see if they don’t have anything lying around. We also know the name of the specific office in charge of the settlement which might lead us somewhere …