Closer look at public history and the archives

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WHEN I received an invitation to present some remarks on ‘Public History and the Archive’ at a workshop at the University of Zimbabwe, I should confess that my immediate reaction was of discomfort with the term ‘public history’.
On the many occasions I have heard public history mentioned, I have always assumed it to simply mean history as it manifests itself in the public domain.
But knowing my remarks had to be delivered to doyens of history from the universities of Zimbabwe and Oxford, I had to do a quick check on latest views on the subject.
And here it got even more confusing.
In that confusion I made good my escape; public history is any history outside academia.
It is about the production and consumption of history in public spaces like theatres, mass media, museums, archives, monuments and landscapes.
And knowing that in the ‘archive’ I was sitting in public history space was comforting ahead of appearance before elite scholars!
As happens quite often when cornered, I found myself seeking refuge in my own life experiences.
I grew up in the village and, like all small boys of my time, served time as a cattle herd boy.
Pastures were scarce and we often had to drive our cattle to a small forest beyond Unyetu School.
The attraction here was not just the abundant savannah grasses but the citrus fruit island that readily took care of our insatiable appetite for exotic fruits.
The place was known as matongo ekwaBhidhi (the abandoned Bhidhi Village).
That perhaps represented my earliest encounter with archaeology and public history.
And perhaps I am the only archaeologist to have visited this site, albeit before I became one.
Years later, in 1982, our English Literature class went to Mutare Museum to watch a film on Macbeth.
The film and the museum both represented a second encounter with public British and Zimbabwean histories.
The next encounter waited until 1986 and it was third time unlucky!
I was a second-year history undergraduate at the University of Zimbabwe where we were required to visit the National Archives of Zimbabwe to research for an assignment.
Our group of 30-or-so history enthusiasts pitched up at the reception desk unannounced.
After a flurry of calls between the officers, we were turned back.
Apparently the then director, Angeline Kamba, a formidable public administrator, felt our group would crowd out more serious researchers.
Days later a compromise was then reached to allow only the history honours undergraduate students access into the archives.
In 1987, I became a regular user of the archive as I worked on my undergraduate dissertation.
In 2000, after over a decade’s absence, spent mainly in museums and archaeological landscapes, I returned to the archive as its director — a space I have remained glued to to this day.
The National Archives of Zimbabwe’s own origins are steeped in both public lobbying and narrow sectoral interests.
The coming of responsible Government in Southern Rhodesia in 1923 saw the retirement of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) records from public administration.
This led to debates on what to do with BSAC records which were then synonymous with pioneer history.
These debates culminated in the establishment of the National Archives in 1935 with the mandate to preserve and promote colonial history.
The archive was a public space for ordinary citizens, not academics, to celebrate pioneer conquest.
But ordinary citizens meant an elite and ‘whites only’ community.
That was largely the same archive that Kamba inherited in 1981.
Her national task was to transform the space and bring in more publics, to democratise the space.
Transformation was required in both the staff and users’ profiles.
Perhaps it was part of this transformation that resulted in my aborted maiden trip to the archives.
Or perhaps the institution’s deep rooted elitism had swallowed her noble intentions?
Whereas tactics have changed over time, the mandate has remained broadly static over time; to acquire, preserve and provide access to historical documentation.
That is the statutory mandate today.
Terminology may change.
For example, my current administrative instruction says: ‘Effective lifecycle management of records and archives.’
Current publics include genealogical enquirers, academic historians, tertiary students and schoolchildren.
The latter constitute more than half of the total users of the archive and the numbers from this category are expected to increase in response to the new school curriculum.
Yet this category is the least demanding in terms of products and services.
Currently, we only offer them visits to our small gallery, access to our antiquated yard exhibition and brief presentations on Zimbabwean history.
The potential to grow production and consumption of public history in this sector is enormous.
Academic historians constitute less than 10 percent of our users but retain the tightest grip on our products and services!
Chieftainship records, civil/deceased estates cases, native affairs (health, education and women), family histories (census/immigration/naturalisation papers/awards/honours/records of service/marriage certificates), the liberation war, agriculture and mining constitute the most frequently requested archives.
The dominance of genealogical materials has also tended to inform our decisions on processing (cataloguing) priorities.
This approach has understandably not always gone down well with academic historians.
The National Archives users have doubled in the last decade to now over 3 000 annually, yet the products, services and amenities have remained static.
Reading room capacity is under 25 users at any given time. Ablutions facilities are severely strained.
The yard exhibitions have deteriorated.
Schools, our majority clients, are demanding for more by way of exhibitions, touch collections, presentations and access to audio visual materials.
Academic historians are crying foul over ever-increasing cataloguing backlogs.
In embracing the public history mandate, perhaps we need to invest more in a globalised Zimbabwe archive in which collections are accessible from various institutional ‘private’ archives (for example, archives of universities and major corporations) as well as through the internet.
With regards the former, we are heartened by increasing biographies on veterans of the Second Chimurenga as well as films on the same.
ZANLA Comes to Town – One and Two, Battle of Mavhonde and upcoming Legends of the Second Chimurenga as well as Chinhoyi 7 are salutary contributions from the big screen to the public history menu.
With respect to exploiting internet potential, we are currently piloting a number of digitisation initiatives.
As a public archive, we realise that we will always be at the intersection of public and academic history, seeking to satisfy often competing interests.

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