I’ve spent the last few days working through material generated by archaeological expeditions to Algeria in the 1950s. Light relief was provided by the minutes of Faculty meetings at the Université d’Alger. Alongside other records from French involvement in its overseas territories, these archives are located in the Archives nationales d’Outre-Mer (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence. Aix is built around a charming old town and is famous for being the home of Paul Cezanne, whose painting, above, shows a provencal farmhouse with a gothic ruin partially hidden in the background.
On first arriving at ANOM you are encouraged to make yourself known to the President de la salle who offers help navigating the catalogue. The reading room at ANOM is rather small and there were never more than 30 people in there at any one time. Behind this reading room lies the large expanse of the warehouse, containing 38km of shelving. The cosiness of the reading room and the relatively small number of researchers means that it is easy to fall into conversation with people working on the diverse collection of material housed there.
A recurring theme of these conversations was the scattered nature of the French colonial archive. While a lot of material is located at ANOM, it is by no means comprehensive. Some sections were repatriated with great haste and so remain split between France and its former colony. The speed of decolonisation also meant that sometimes the catalogue can only offer vague hints as to what any particular carton of papers contains. Researchers in the reading room were embarking on projects that took them over the world: a protagonist they first encountered in the ministerial archives in Aix would reappear in a letter exchange discovered in Pondicherry. Trips through the the archives followed the tracks of earlier imperial adventuring.
This was my first extended experience of archive work, although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ‘the archive’ over the past few years. Partly inspired by my reading of Henri Marrou’s De la connaissance historique I realised that during my days at ANOM I’d come to grant the archived material some kind of agency: papers hid from me and revealed themselves; they stood in conversation with each other and me; the look of the material in the carton could suggest panic or confidence. Handling this material forced me to think about the emotional labour that is part of the research process.
Mainly, though, this encounter with ANOM reminded me of the contingency of archiving, of its piecemeal nature. Working from the catalogue, one got the sense of neatness and order. But as in Cezanne’s painting, a ruin hid just behind this apparently coherent structure. It was this ruin, shaped by hope and panic, ambition and despair, that was revealed when the cartons spilled their photographs, manuscripts and transcriptions.