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Peace motif on a hillside rock in Yaoundé

​Peace motif on a hillside rock in Yaoundé

Archives: Governance, Memory and Heritage conference in Yaoundé, Cameroon

In November 2018 Richard Wiltshire, Senior Archivist for Business Archives in the Collections team represented LMA at the International Council on Archives’ three-day Annual Conference - Archives: Governance, Memory and Heritage - in Yaoundé, Cameroon, held from 26 to 28 November. Richard tells more about the main global themes which were discussed at the conference.

I was invited to speak at the conference on ICA’s Section for Local, Municipal and Territorial Archives panel session on City archives and interculturalism to promote LMA’s growing African-related archives. I have responsibility for the archives of many London-based businesses such as Standard Chartered Bank which have global significance. On the panel I also covered my work on the recent deposit of the Africa Centre Limited archive.

The ICA is an international non-governmental organisation which exists to promote international cooperation for archives and archivists. The aim of the ICA is ‘to promote the management and use of records and archives, and the preservation of the archival heritage of humanity around the world’. It was the first time the ICA had held its annual conference in Africa. This was a major event for Cameroon with the host organising committee based in the Prime Minister’s office. Esther Olembe, Cameroon’s National Archivist, had clearly worked hard with the ICA to make the conference, which took place at Palais des Congrès overlooking Yaoundé the capital city of Cameroon, a success. There were even conference banners over the main roads.

The main themes of the conference were highly political: the importance of shared archival heritage between different countries especially those formerly under colonial administrations; human rights and the record; and the importance of archives as a catalyst for peace by providing crucial evidence on decisions made in the past. The conference also aimed to assist archive managers and professionals based in Africa and other countries in the world where archives are at major risk from war, detrimental environmental conditions and other factors, and record-keeping practices require much needed development and support.

Highlights of the event

David Fricker, President of the ICA gave an inspiring opening address on the first day in which he emphasised archives’ crucial role in supporting citizens’ fundamental rights, public trust and countries’ sustainable development. He underlined how we all need both buildings and funding for digital technologies forever to preserve and make available records and archives.

In many countries it is the case that only government archives are collected and preserved, leaving many privately created records at risk. David Sutton, Chair of the ICA’s Section for Archives of Literature and Art and Visiting Research Fellow at University of Reading, spoke about a project to collect literary archives in Cameroon. The initiative began with a scoping list of key literary pioneers and pan-African prize winners as well as authors with careers in political and other positions. Advice was given to Cameroon’s archivists about how to develop relationships with the authors and their families. The National Archives of Cameroon has now acquired around 50 collections including authors’ notebooks, poems, reflections and other papers, in Sutton’s opinion, made possible through the sheer enthusiasm of the archives’ staff.

Speakers at the SLMT Session

​Speakers at the SLMT Session

I was particularly struck by a paper delivered by an impassioned speaker Frankline A. Awung of the University of Yaoundé which emphasised the importance of archives as an evidential tool of truth in solving political unrest. The presentation was titled ‘Archives Truth Peace and Reconciliation - contribution of archive sources to break deadlock of Anglophone problem in Cameroon’. Since 2016, the two regions of the Cameroon in the north-west and south-west which were formerly under British rule (1922-1960) have seen union strikes and armed conflict. This ‘Anglophone Crisis’ Awung stated was caused by increasing marginalisation and poor governance rooted in the colonial legacy. Awung quoted Jean Koufan (2017) ‘After God is Archives’. He explained that the only way to establish truth is to build peace and reconciliation. Awung argued that the role of national archives is a morally and ethically imperative part of society in acting as an instrument of truth. He felt archive services should be delegated greater powers and autonomy to play their role especially around access required by Truth and Reconciliation Commissions which help give communities amnesty under socio-political turmoil.

Jantje Steenhuis spoke about Rotterdam Archives’ work with the business archives of the Cape Verde record label Morabeza Records founded 1955 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. I loved the colourful documentary which was produced as part of their project with music from Cape Verde covering the founder’s life under colonial rule and migration story to Rotterdam. Many of the lyrics were around the theme of love of country and the desire for independence. An official ceremony took place in the Netherlands soon after the conference in which the King of Netherlands handed digital copies of the collection to the president of Cape Verde. This is an excellent example of shared heritage between two countries.

During the conference, the ICA’s Expert Group on Shared Archival Heritage held a roundtable session to look at its future role around displaced archive collections. The group looks at the resolution of disputed ownership, access and custody issues, often caused by the colonial past and/or conflict which have led to the displacement and migration of archive collections away from where they were first created. The group aims to promote a balanced settlement between the parties involved which enhances access to archives. In order to provide defined concepts and ethics as a basis for legal settlement and provide standards and tools, a new survey of displaced records was announced with initial results due for release in March 2019. Communities, governments, First Nations and others are encouraged to provide information about their claims.

An excellent instance of archives successfully returned having been removed from a former colony by the colonial power was presented jointly by the National Archives of The Netherlands and Suriname, South America. Rita Tjien Fooh, President of ICA’s Caribbean Regional Branch (CARBICA) and Head of the National Archives of Suriname highlighted how she had worked closely together with the Netherlands since the Government of Suriname requested the return of the archives in 2006. The Netherlands was the colonial power from 1665 until 1975. She explained that due to poor record-keeping and environmental storage conditions, in 1916 a temporary loan agreement was drawn up to transfer the archives of Suriname to the Netherlands. Between 1916-1977, 800 metres of colonial records were shipped to the Netherlands. By 2018 all records were returned to Suriname through a mutually beneficial project involving large-scale conservation and digitisation of the collections. The success of the project was down to good communication and an agreed memorandum of understanding to support past and future collaborations between the two countries.

Reunification Monument Yaoundé

​Reunification Monument Yaoundé

Monique Rocourt, Special Counsel, Haiti delivered a highly emotive keynote speech which had a profound impact on the audience, guiding feelings for the rest of the conference. She spoke about the cultural relevance of archives in helping nations trace and incarnate memory and history. Records act as an authentic benchmark and foundation of what is still to be done and their preservation and access empowers society to ‘protect the future’ by enabling the transmission of collective memory to future generations by passing on what took place in the past. She explained how too many times decisions are taken without view of the past. For Haiti, its people reflect a slave past where ancestors were removed from multiple tribes across Africa. She explained their memory was of torture and rejection from a land where they have no rights - now the country has freedom but its people are still struggling to find their own identity and build on multiple peoples’ common past.

Finally, Anne Gilliland, Professor at UCLA, USA spoke about ‘Archiving Memory: Displaced peoples’ and the Refugee Rights in Records R3 Project. According to the United Nations there are over 70 million displaced people now who also need records as a fundamental human right to identify who they are. The world is still dealing with the impact of refugee migrations in the First and Second World Wars. This talk resonated with important collections in LMA’s care which include World Jewish Relief which documents those individuals who were displaced from Europe in the Second World War. The project is developing A Human Rights in Records framework.

A Fellowship Award at ICA’s General Assembly meeting was presented to Jonathan Rhys-Lewis, a former conservator at LMA for his contribution in raising the profile of conservation and preservation of archives, environment and buildings globally. He is the only conservator to be awarded an ICA Fellowship.

The conference concluded with a set of resolutions developed by a roundtable of representatives from African nations as to the future of African archives. I left the conference like many others feeling an overwhelming sense of solidarity across nations regarding records and archives and hope it has a lasting impact in Africa. Cameroon’s new statement is ‘archives is us, it’s our future’.

Published:
12 February 2019
Last Modified:
14 June 2019

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