Preserving Counter-Narratives and The Racial Imaginary Institute

By EmmaKarin

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The lights dim in the Langston Hughes Auditorium within the Schomburg Center located on Malcolm X Boulevard. A short video entitled, “What is the Schomburg Center?” begins to roll and the voice of Shola Lynch, curator of the center’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, booms, “it is the place where we come to see who we are. Not just some body’s reflection of who we are.” This is the true theme of center as well as of the evening. We are here to celebrate the launch of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) website, a new type of art archive founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine. Rankine and Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks are moderating a discussion between two artists featured in the archive, Alexandra Bell and Hank Willis Thomas. The website is one of the first steps for the institute, which will collaborate with organizations, collectives and spaces to confront the concept of race through, the activation of interdisciplinary work and a democratized exploration” (The Racial Imaginary Institute).

The first web issue focuses on “constructions, deconstructions, and visualizations of/around whiteness, white identity, white rage/fragility/violence, and white dominant structures” (The Racial Imaginary Institute). Whiteness as the first theme was ­­­­­deliberate, investigating white dominance and “America’s commitment to whiteness” says Rankine, is the first step in dismantling racism and the concept of race. The website will collect submissions throughout the year and is capable of hosting all types of media. This will allow for a variety of voices to be heard across artistic disciplines to show different manifestations of lived experience within the dominant structures of whiteness.

'Tulsa Man' by Alexandra Bell

‘Tulsa Man’ by Alexandra Bell

“I don’t think I will ever live in a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Bell. A graduate of Columbia’s Journalism school Bell professes that it mostly, “made [her] a very snobby reader.” She critiques the latent racism within journalism through creating counter-narratives by editing articles from The New York Times, enlarging them tenfold and wheat pasting them in public spaces throughout New York City, predominantly Brooklyn. Her most well-known work is “A Teenager with Promise” a commentary of the inept coverage by the paper over Michael Brown’s murder. Her pieces are diptychs with one panel featuring a redacted and edited copy of the original article noting the language choices that sustain the dominant white narrative; the second panel is her visual representation of the more accurate counter-narrative.

'Absolut Power' by Hank Willis Thomas

‘Absolut Power’ by Hank Willis Thomas

“Race is the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” Hank Willis Thomas tells the audience. Thomas is a conceptual artist whose body of work intersects on ideas of identity, commodity, and pop culture. He believes that “black identity” is fabricated, co-opted and capitalized upon by whiteness. Most known for his series B®anded consisting of manipulated photographs to explore themes of the black body as a commodity from the time of slavery to the present day. One of his most striking pieces is Absolut Power, a play on the Absolut vodka ad campaigns, filling the iconic bottle’s silhouette with the diagram of the Brooke’s slave ship.

“Through archives, the past is controlled[,]” Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook remind us, “[c]ertain stories are privileged and others marginalized” (1). The institution of the archive “represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going” (Schwartz and Cook 1). These are the exact issues the institute sets out to tackle. Racism is a social construct, it is built upon privilege and power that is either overt or subconcious. When a police officer shoots a black man his defense most often that he was afraid. But afraid of what? White dominance has controlled the narrative surrounding black bodies since we kidnapped them from their homes and enslaved them here on our soil. We have allowed this narrative to continue unchecked actively and passively in all corners of society. In archives specifically, it can be seen in the collection process. It is not uncommon to search records under the “Black History” heading only to find files filled with solely caricature advertising, gruesome accounts of lynching, or similar narratives that place people of color as the victimized other. These narrow collections focus on “Black History” from a controlled white perspective.

As a writer and scholar of African history and diaspora, Arturo Schomburg, for whom the center is dedicated, came up against many who were quick to say that people of color had no history. He went on to amass the largest collection of artifacts and records of black history to preserve the history and culture which society deemed illegitimate. He strove to preserve the range of black experiences, from excellence to exploitation, rather than focusing on the suffering and stereotypes. That to him was not African history it was the history of white dominance and oppression. Because of his legacy ­­­­we have the records that are the literal actual narrative of black experience and not just what white archivist and society have deemed the acceptable history.

The Racial Imaginary Institute seeks to expound upon the ideas of Shomburg by collecting and creating a “deep memory archive” (Brooks) of artistic manifestations of lived experience. It will serve to capture not just our history past, but also our history current. This is a pointed effort to start the conversation now rather than wait for our future historians to interpret the evidence. This is a new way of collecting and disseminating information through active community participation that will circumvent the power still held in the institution of the archive.

The Racial Imaginary Institute

The Racial Imaginary Institute

Works Referenced:“About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.”, New York Public Library ,

Charlton, Lauretta. “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017,

Félix, Doreen St. “The.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017,

“HANK WILLIS THOMAS, BRANDED.” Jack Shainman Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, Artist page.

Rankine, Claudia, Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, Alexandra Bell, and Hank Willis Thomas. “Artist and the Archive: Deconstructing Racial Imagination at the Schomburg” New York Public Library Schomburg Center. 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York. 26 Sept. 2017. Artist Panel Discussion.

Schwartz, Joan M, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science : International Journal on Recorded Information. (2002). Print.

“The Racial Imaginary Institute.” The Racial Imaginary Institute, The Racial Imaginary Institute,


Overcoming Difficult Heritage Through Mutual Acknowledgement

By Kcalnan

Many nations fail to acknowledge difficult heritage, often intentionally, out of fear of damaging their national identity. In the article “Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult,’” Sharon Macdonald defines difficult heritage as “times of evil wrong-doing that did no evident credit to a positive national identity” (2015, 6). The Holocaust, the Native American genocide, slavery, and the Nanking Massacre are examples of difficult heritage that nations most likely wish could be obscured from their history. Acknowledging previous atrocities might remind the world of a nation’s dark past, in turn damaging their national identity. Despite a nation’s concern for acknowledging its difficult heritage, Macdonald suggests that “self-disclosure and self-reprimanding have…come to be widely regarded as a positive development by those inside as well as outside the societies that are perpetrating them” (19). Honesty is as important among nations as it is between friends. Macdonald’s examples of positive development include the opening of Germany’s educational exhibits surrounding National Socialism and the payment of reparations by France to Holocaust survivors as a result of the national rail company’s participation in the Holocaust (12-17). Occasionally, victimized groups pressured nations into addressing their difficult heritage, such as victim organizations in post-WWII Germany. When victim nations desire an apology, it pressures guilty nations to acknowledge their difficult heritage. But, what if a victimized nation does not seek an apology?

Macdonald’s article does not discuss instances where victimized nations do not seek an apology. A clear example is the atrocities committed by the United States during World War II: bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1945, the United States government justified bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to end the war in the Pacific and prevent further American casualties. Unfortunately, the bombing instantaneously cost Japan approximately 120,000 military and civilian lives, and tens of thousands later lost their lives which has been attributed to exposure to radiation from the bombs (2017). Although the bombings occurred 72 years ago, one can assume that the citizens of Japan await an apology from the United States. With this in mind, according to the Los Angeles Times, a Russian news agency conducted an opinion poll in 2015 and found that 60% of the Japanese public would welcome an apology (Adelstein 2016). Despite the results of the Russian poll in Japan, the United States has not apologized. Why not? Research indicates that the United States’ apology track record after committing atrocities is lacking at best. However, there is another reason that the United States refrains from apologizing to Japan. An apology might create difficulties rather than solve issues for Japan’s government. Macdonald argues that, “apologizing for past wrongs also requires a bringing of those wrongs into view” (16). If the United States was to apologize for its wrongdoings during World War II, logic would indicate that society would then look to Japan’s government officials to apologize for the atrocities committed by Japan throughout its history. According to Adelstein, Japanese officials are concerned that an apology from the United Stated would “only serve to energize anti-nuclear activists” in Japan (2016). Concerned about the issues that could arise from receiving an apology, Japanese officials prefer to move forward rather than dwell on their painful past.

Is it feasible for one nation to absolve itself of an atrocity if the victimized nation prefers no apology? It can be possible through cooperative understanding and mutual hope for a better future. Macdonald calls for “public acknowledgement” of difficult heritage, which does not necessarily require an apology (6). Nations such as the United States and Japan can acknowledge their difficult heritages without formally apologizing for committing the atrocities. In May of 2016 United States President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima. Likewise, in December of 2016 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor. During their visits, both leaders offered condolences for lives lost, however neither leader apologized for their nations’ atrocities (Sisk 2016). Although no formal apologies were exchanged, both leaders publicly acknowledged their nation’s difficult heritage. Mutual understanding of the cost of war, particularly the loss of human life, has enabled the United States and Japan to move forward and become powerful allies. Since both Japan and the United States understand the devastation that nuclear weapons can cause, their alliance provides hope for a better future where other nations are deterred from utilizing nuclear weaponry.

Acknowledging difficult heritage offers opportunities in multiple realms of education. It opens the academic door for more in-depth discussions regarding war crimes, the aftermath of atrocities, reconciliation among nations, and the opportunity to learn valuable lessons from difficult heritage. Library and information professions continue to refine their educational platforms which provide insight and understanding regarding a nation’s difficult heritage. Museums and archives presently showcase the atrocities and expose the human necessity to educate current and future generations in regards to the importance of preventing similar atrocities from ever occurring again. The significance of acknowledging difficult heritage is that it inspires mankind to progress towards compassion, forgiveness, and pursuing closure.


Works Cited

Adelstein, Jake. 2016. Los Angeles Times. “Japan doesn’t want the U.S. to apologize for bombing Hiroshima. Here’s why.” Los Angeles Times. Last Modified April 29, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2017. 2009. Accessed September 24, 2017.

Macdonald, Sharon. 2015. “Is ‘difficult heritage’ still difficult?” Museum International 67: 6-22.

Sisk, Richard. 2016. “Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Last Modified December 28, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2017.


“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

By Carissa

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading

Institutional Memory

By belantara

In their article, “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” Schwartz and Cook discuss the important impact archives have on social memory and the often overlooked power held by information professionals. They write:

“archives…wield power over the administrative, legal and fiscal accountability of governments, corporations and individuals…[they] wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups and societies.”

Does the fact that an object is in an archive make it more a more valuable object or reliable as a source?  Who decides?  What are the possible futures of the past and how can the past be found? Whose memory gets stored and whose gets lost? Author Alberto Manguel calls libraries “preservers of memory of our society” and as such as libraries and archives play an essential role in deciding the fate of the past and as such have a power that is rarely associated with them by the general public.

To preserve knowledge and history seems to be a human need. Is it related to our biological instinct for survival?  Perhaps we feel that even though our lives are ephemeral, memory of our lives should be everlasting?  NASA’s golden record was launched into space in 1977 with the hope of reaching other living beings or perhaps human descendants. The record contains sounds of nature along with languages and music from around the world.   Undoubtedly however, one record can not capture every aspect of human diversity, indeed, not even a large archive can contain a history or memory of everything.  Who then, will tell the stories that are not told by archives, and who will listen?

As Rodney G.S. Carter points out in the article, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences and Power in Silence:”

“A universal archive, one that preserves the memory of a culture is an impossibility as memory is necessarily an individual thing: there are many memories that often are conflicting and contradictory. Even if archivists are willing to allow multiple voices into the archives, it will never be complete. There is simply no way of capturing the multitude of stories, although archivists must try. ”

Even if archivists and librarians aim to create an all-inclusive archive, decisions about what to collect and what not to collect must be made. Not everything can be kept.  As Schwarz and Cook point out, these decisions heavily impact memory of the past and materials given precious archival space are often used to validate ideas of how things happened or are assigned a higher value than items that are not part of an official archival collection. Yet, as Schwarz and Cook write, “what goes on in the archives remains remarkably unknown.” Schwarz and Cook mainly address the content of libraries and archives, but their mission to raise discussion about the power held by archivists is reminiscent of radical catalogers’ calls to draw attention to and change biases in cataloging practices.  The organization and classifying methods used in public collections adds yet another layer to the complex power relations embedded in archives and libraries.   How do archivists and librarians make decisions and how can these decisions be made more visible to the people who use them?

Perhaps one solution may be to raise public dialogue on these issues and to begin to raise awareness about the curatorial aspects of library and archival work.   It seems that weeding is one of aspect of collection management that draws wide public attention. News articles describe the public’s dismay at seeing large quantities of books and other materials being removed from a library’s collection. Articles from library professionals list up ways libraries can help diffuse upset over weeding and how to talk about the deaccessioning process in a way that is more acceptable to the public. Perhaps these are times when the public’s attention could also be drawn to the complex task librarians and archivists face when trying to create diverse and useful collections. Libraries and archives could create a public forum to openly discuss these issues and gather input from community members about the stories they want their libraries and archives to tell.

Another strategy that could be useful would be to offer small public tours of behind the scenes archival and library spaces. Such tours could help shed some light on important issues regarding collection development and cataloging practices. People can see what goes into making all the resources available to them. People often have a greater appreciation for work once they have a better idea of what goes into it. People attending the tour can respond to some of the practices they see.  This type of activity can help libraries and archives make their activities more transparent and open to public input.

Another way to increase public involvement in and awareness of important library/archival issues is through art.  Art has the capacity to reach wide audiences and inspire them to see and hear things they encounter everyday in a new way. A number of interesting artworks that explore human interaction with library and archival systems have been on exhibition around New York in recent years, and some of them have been successful in generating much needed public dialogue about some of the issues Schwarz and Cook raise.  Interactive artworks, such as an audiovisual artwork called Kinokologue invite audiences to participate in cataloging tasks encourage them to engage with collections in a new and playful way.

One other interesting option may be to use beacon technology to help tell alternative narratives about the collections. Beacons are small transmitters that can be placed almost anywhere to send out information to smart devices within a certain range.   Perhaps users could learn about the b-side of library collections, such as the story of where a particular item came from or why it was chosen to be part of a collection. Or maybe the beacons could be used to indicate what’s missing from a collection and invite input on this from patrons.

While each of these solutions may not be possible in every context, they do offer ways of increasing public awareness about the important yet often invisible power issues Schwarz and Cook raise. When people have the opportunity to gain insight into how collections are produced and maintained and the decisions librarians and archivists are faced with, they may begin to see these places as less neutral objective spaces and recognize them for the socio-cultural-historic constructed places that they are. While libraries, archives and museums are sometimes known as memory institutions, perhaps such activities may help people realize that these institutional memories, just like each of ours are inherently biased, faulty and incomplete.  Every object and every memory changes with time and context.  What does not change is the human desire to preserve memories as best as possible with the hope that future generations can learn from and find something of themselves within them.

Works Cited:

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

CARTER, Rodney G.S.. Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence. Archivaria, [S.l.], sep. 2006.

A Monument to Memory

By Rachel O'Neill

Control of the archive – variously defined – means control of society and thus control of determining history’s winners and losers.1

Or, as Hollywood would have it:

While we must, and will, win this war, we must also remember the high price that’ll be paid if the very foundation of modern civilization is destroyed.

So opines George Clooney in the wonderfully melodramatic trailer for the hotly anticipated movie: The Monuments Men

Based on Robert M. Edsel’s book novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, this is the remarkable true story of six men, handpicked to rescue the art masterpieces of the world from Nazi thieves under direct orders from Hitler during World War II.

In total, there were 345 men and women from thirteen nations who joined the MFAA – Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Section of the Allied armies. Established in June 1943, members of the MFAA came from a variety of arts based backgrounds, art historians, curators, artists, architects and educators and went on to illustrious careers at America’s top Arts Institutions. Many spent up to six years in Europe during and post WWII protecting monuments, locating artworks, and in the years following the end of the war, handling the restitution of works of art and cultural works stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.

While it may be all too obvious why the recovery and restitution of paintings, sculptures, artifacts and documents stolen during WWII was so important to the Allies, it is worth stressing how vitally important having these works restored to their rightful owners and places is, in terms of serving to reconnect those people, torn apart by war on a scale never before experienced, to their cultural past. While Schwartz and Moore raise questions and concerns throughout their essay: Archives, Records, Power, in their conclusion there can be no doubting the importance of archives:

Memory, like history, is rooted in archives. Without archives, memory falters, knowledge of accomplishments fades, pride in a shared past dissipates. Archives counter these losses. Archives contain the evidence of what went before. This is particularly germane in the modern world…the archive remains as one foundation of historical understanding. Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories. Archives are our memories. 2

The drive to collect, organize and conserve materials from the past seems an innately human one. As does the converse: the desire to destroy, limit access to, or hoard, in order to exert some sort of power or control over others is equally a uniquely human characteristic.

Marlene Manoff, in her essay Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines looks to the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who, she states:

…claims that Freudian psychoanalysis offers us a theory of the archive premised on two conflicting forces. One is a death drive and the other is a conservation or archive drive that is linked to the pleasure principle. In this formulation, the archive affirms the past, present, and future; it preserves the records of the past and it embodies the promise of the present to the future.13 3

Manoff goes on to point out:

The stakes in this struggle can be very high. In 1992, during the war between Abkhazia and Georgia, four Georgian members of the National Guard threw incendiary grenades into the Abkhazian State Archives resulting in the destruction of much of the history of the entire region.17 According to Derrida’s formulation, such destruction represents the failure of the present in its responsibility to the future. Similar losses have recently occurred in Iraq. In the aftermath of the U.S. led “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Iraq’s National Museum, National Library, National Archives, and other repositories have been looted and burned. A chorus of voices has declared this a cultural disaster of immense proportion.4

One of those voices was journalist Adam Goodheart whose article in the New York Times Missing: A Vase, a Book, a Bird and 10,000 Years of History, Mannoff cites, was informed of the devastating significance of the Iraq’s cultural losses by John Malcolm Russell, Professor of Art History and Archeology at Massachusetts College of Art.

In his own, eloquent essay, Why Should We Care?, Russell explains how he found himself responding to western media with the cover-all response: “Because Iraq is the cradle of civilization” 5 when media asked why the world should care about the looting of the Iraq museum in April 2003. But for Russell and his Iraqi born colleagues on site, the significance of the loss went even deeper than the fact that artifacts had been stolen or destroyed. He describes one of his most profound experiences in the days immediately following the looting of the Iraq Museum was participating in an NPR recorded discussion via satellite phone with Ahmed Abdullah Faddam, professor of sculpture at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts:

Professor Ahmed was very eloquent about what the losses at the museums and libraries meant for the future of the Iraqi people… But his most chilling comment transcended nationalism: “What can you do with a man who is ignorant and doesn’t have any culture? He is just like a dead man.”6

Russell goes on to comment:

He is also a very dangerous man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled with dross. Having a past, having a sense of who we are, allows us to measure our-selves against what political demagogues or market forces say we should be.7

In terms of an on-going commitment to protect the world’s cultural heritage in 2006 the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield was formed, and in September 2008, the U.S. finally ratified the 1954 Hague Convention (Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict), the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross. Between the USCBS and Clooney’s homage to the Monuments Men perhaps there is hope yet for the world’s memories!

1.Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook: Archives, Records, PowerArchival Science 2: 1–19, © 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers
3.Marlene Manoff: Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines, 2004 portal: Libraries and the Academy 4(1): 9-25
5.John Malcolm Russell,Why Should We Care? Art Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 22-29.

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