The archive as foundation for personal narratives

South African archivist, writer, archival theorist and (currently) head of Memory Programming at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Verne Harris, is due to hold a seminar on 28th November 2012 for students at Oslo and Akershus University College on the subject of the archive as foundation for personal narratives. The basis for the seminar is the book «Conversations with Myself» that comprises material from Nelson Mandela’s personal archive; «from letters written in the darkest hours of Mandela’s twenty-seven years of imprisonment to the draft of an unfinished sequel to Long Walk to Freedom.».

In the introduction to «Conversations with Myself», Verne Harris states that the book aims to give readers access to Mandela behind the public figure. The introduction further describes the fragmented state of Mandela’s private archive, and how the selection of material for the book was done. Harris is one of the greatest public critics of the assumption that archivists can or should the objective guardians of «the truth», and «Conversations with Myself» does not set out to present to us a truth, but rather, as described by Barack Obama in the book’s foreword, to remind us that Nelson Mandela has not been a perfect man, and that by acknowledging this, we may ourselves strive to be and do better; «Like all of us, he has his flaws. But it is precisely those imperfections that should inspire each and every one of us […] to overcome fear and doubt; to keep working when the outcome of our struggle is not certain; to forgive others and to challenge ourselves.».

In his essay «The Textuality of the Archive», Andrew Prescott states that human experiences can never be encapsulated in text, and any text will therefore only be able to form the basis for the reader’s own experiences while interacting with the text. He goes on to state how it is indeed possible for us, through the sources we use and the methods with which we handle these sources, to approach a reconstruction of past reality. However, in such processes, we must not forget that we will inevitably be telling stories, and although our stories might be true, they will never be objective.

When something is selected, something else is deselected, and therefore the telling of one story embodies the choice not to tell a different story. The story that is told in «Conversations with Myself» is not the whole story, the only story or the most truthful story about Nelson Mandela, but it is a truly fascinating personal narrative that should be read by everyone.


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