Michael Chaiken, Archivist and Curator of the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently wrote that the “archivist’s impulse…affirms that what has come before can be made eternally alive and present, provided, as Nietzsche reminds us, that what we are celebrating in our own history is not an end in itself, but a means of serving life through a fundamental continuity with the strengths of our past.”
To this end, as a neat visual rendering of this impulse, our Archivist, at the tail end of a year in which some posited that we needed to be reminded of our collective past in the light of certain re-emergent nihilistic tendencies, decided that our shiny, new (but very stark, white) Reading Room required a frieze to adorn it’s walls. A series of images, illustrating the depth and breadth of GCU’s Archives & Special Collections, were then carefully selected, and in the week before Christmas the stars at our Print Design Services worked their magic on our walls.
And so now our users find themselves encircled (and hopefully inspired) by images of our collective past. So far, everyone, from students, researchers or just pop-in visitors passing by our windows, has remarked on its appeal. It would seem that one cannot help but be drawn in by it, to peek and peer at the stories on our wall, and it has been fascinating to me to see how every viewer is drawn to different images and indeed sees them differently; it confirms our innate fascination with our past, of how we lived then (and the simple yet sublime power of these images is rendering the past as just so ~ as ’we’, not ‘them’).
Some images speak for themselves, and trigger personal memories, ~ Nelson Mandela united in smiles with a packed George Square. Others possess a mystery and power which is innate (yet increases once you know the personal details) ~ a sepia shot of a group of men in the winter outdoors pose smiling in front of a giant ‘Socialism’ snowball (WW1 conscientious objectors in a work camp, their principles spelled out amidst the harshest of conditions).
Other guests have been drawn to the small details, not noticed on first viewing, such as the image of Nelson Mandela and Brian Filling of the Scottish AAM. One notices their smiling, celebratory faces, beaming for all the world to see, and yet it is only after a few further glances that one draws one’s eyes away from their faces and sees that these two middle-aged men in suits are tightly holding hands. Elsewhere, a satirical cartoon has Margaret Thatcher, equally tightly, grasping onto the fundamentals of a striking worker.
Elsewhere, the aesthetic power is undeniable ~ the graphic beauty of a Chilean political poster, or the stark sublimity of Larry Herman’s Glasgow photographs ~ capturing a common humanity that transcends lenses, geography and history. Herman’s haunting industrial shots also transcend their environment almost to the point of science fiction; the past as a different planet, let alone place.
The innate idea of a frieze represents continuity, encirclement, an unbroken chain of connection. These images may be frozen in time, but their power is thawed out by our looking upon them. What has come before passes on and surrounds us now. There actually is no end to history, despite the claims of some (as 2016 undoubtedly illustrated).
As Michael Chaiken concluded ~ “In this regard, preservation is the enemy of nihilism and evinces a simple hope: that the future lasts forever.”
~ Símon Docherty, Archive Assistant