Imagining Futures through Un/Archived Pasts

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Classics and Ancient History


Archives are sites of negotiation about visions of the future. Decisions of what is to be collected, accessed or preserved tend to privilege certain narratives over others. It is about whose story will continue to be told and how, and whose silenced. These questions are acute in moments of post-conflict, displacement and reconstruction. Our Network depends on linking expertise from contexts where these issues are paramount: in Lebanon, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, and if possible Syria. These are our starting points to explore and build methodologies of egalitarian archiving practice that allows for co-existence and recognition of multiple experiences of the past, with dialogue across generations, gender, class, ethnicities, status categories and multiple stakeholders.

Imagining Futures embraces archives as intrinsically constructed and multi-vocal. This is crucial as we seek to address legacies from difficult and contested pasts. We test dissensus methods that facilitate open dialogue and challenge a singular 'we'. Acts of archiving that draw on local knowledges and joint decision-making in what is to be remembered or forgotten, have a unique authority. They counter, stereotypes, gentrification, discrimination, and the lack of appreciation for shared histories and of community's place in the global context. We use the intrinsic power of the archive for its capacity to build confidence, enhance understanding and reveal co-existing narratives, to reduce conflict within and between groups, enhancing the potential for sustainable peace.

The Network provides an opportunity for convergence and co-creation of knowledge, from geo-political contexts that rarely get to share ideas and experiences directly. Each represents a different point in a future: the crisis in the Middle East, the long-term post-conflict reconciliation in Africa, and the colonising past of Europe. Within each of these moments the archive has a distinct power. We examine its role and articulate archiving practices that contribute to a future which promotes, not suppresses, just, peaceful and inclusive societies. The urgency for new approaches stems from the situation in the Middle East, and seeks to capture, support and enhance methodologies arising from contexts of post-conflict reconciliation in Africa. In this moment of intense post-war reconstruction, funded by billions in foreign aid ($1.2 b for Syria), to fuel revitalisation and stability, is where the potential for our project is most critical. Master-plans have led to rapid urbanisation (from 50-80% in Syria), favouring a small sector of society, at the cost of local needs, interests, and non-monumental cultural sites. Well-meaning initiatives can become acts of violence by rupturing communities' crucial links between the intangible lived heritage and the tangible. This insensitivity contributes to further destruction, displacement and reification of sectarian divisions. It also excludes interests of millions who live in precarious conditions as refuge and asylum-seekers, with many in camps.

Our aim is to facilitate the opening-up and sensitive use of existing archives to create new ones and articulate methods for egalitarian archival practices that respect multiple and divergent narratives. This will be achieved through 4 investigative Labs across diverse socio-political and temporal contexts in Lebanon, Ghana and Tanzania, and essential activities beyond them, such as the Commissions. Through engaging with existing archives, special and non-traditional archives in-situ, creative open digital tools, open-studio events with different publics, our goal is to build towards a co-produced policy-manifesto, in dialogue with governing bodies and supra-state organisations as e.g. ICCROM. Our wider ambition, through exposing cultural practices as important sites of negotiation, is to advocate for culture to be officially recognised as a humanitarian need.

Planned Impact

The primary impact of Imagining Futures is the Network itself - an intersection of academic and non-academic knowledge to co-produce egalitarian archiving practices, generating community archives that are multi-vocal, accessible and inclusive. It incorporates community actors, academics, architects, practitioners, archivists, memory institutions, governments and NGOs. It will build skills through knowledge-exchange between team experts and engage communities in the Middle East and Africa. Ultimately these practices will activate existing archives and related heritage sites as platforms for discourse, leading to socio-cultural impact. The Network is a bridge for long-lasting partnerships, across diverse contexts allowing us to work towards our Objectives.

Societal & Economic Impact: The project will impact social cohesion through recovering co-existing narratives, activation of memory-sites, and by establishing self-archiving and research to imagine new futures through community activity. Long-term cohesion is related to societal stability and economic growth. The project has economic potential, by increasing accessibility, preservation and interaction with heritage, it can be translated into an economic asset, if appropriate, enhancing sustainability through local and visitor economies. The heritage sector in the Middle East and Africa will therefore benefit.

A priority is an inclusive network that can impact on people of different backgrounds and genders via socio-economic empowerment, inclusiveness of previously marginalised and minority narratives, and raised awareness of distorted representations of history. Beyond the project, the expected impact will be collaborative and equitable imaginations of future archiving enhancing fair and meaningful accounts of society to ensure representation of diverse values.

Academic Impact: Equitable partnerships are central to the project, leading to academic outputs by an interdisciplinary team with impact in e.g. social science, humanities, cultural heritage, architecture, history, archaeology, peace-building and postcolonial studies. The team includes ODA and non-ODA members, balanced gender, and different career levels, enhancing equitable impacts. Publications will include topics that: recover narratives; analyse, interpret and re-cast past archiving practices; examine egalitarian archival processes and innovative methodological approaches to them through digital means.

Capacity Building: This multi-disciplinary project will create a broad-ranging body of knowledge of use to researchers and practitioners especially relating to our key network partner-sites in Tanzania, Ghana, Lebanon and S. Africa, incorporating contexts of post-conflict, post-colonialism and displacement. It intends, through a co-produced manifesto on egalitarian archiving, to inform policies used by organisations, cultural and memory institutions, and contribute to enhancing strategic aspects of development and overseas aid. The training and co-creation of innovative archiving methods and practices, as well as the activation of previously archived material, will engage local communities and allow capacity building across the network.

Policy Impact: The project will generate policy recommendations for organisations of different scales. 1) For project institutions and universities, to better support complex ethics and practice of transnational, trans-cultural, and trans-language research collaborations. 2) Recommendations, will be articulated for bodies as OSCE, ICCROM & UNESCO, regarding the importance of valuing non-traditional and multi-vocal archives for sustainable peace and reconstruction in conflict zones. These will emphasise the role of memory in social cohesion, encourage ethical and sensitive use of existing archives, and promote community-based archives. This will advocate for culture's role in building just, peaceful, inclusive societies and for its recognition as a humanitarian need.


10 25 50