Balloons and Archives: Reflecting on a Conference in Berlin

When I arrived in Berlin the weekend of November 9, 2014, I joined more than a million visitors and locals had assembled to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I joined millions of tourists confronting questions of memory as we traced the path of the Berlin Wall, this time demarcated with glowing helium balloons, rather than barbed wire. That evening, 8,000 individual balloons floated up into the sky.

berlin-wall-fall-25th-anniversary (Credit: International Business Times)

Yet I was no mere tourist; I had journeyed to Berlin on a #ArchInfo mission to attend the inaugural congress of “Archives numériques et mémoire culturelle,” hosted by the Berlin branch of the Institut Français and the French Embassy to Germany. I ,along with three fellow French Masters students (and even 4 German students!), would produce a live stream of notes and tweets during the November 10th event. The event organizers had invited experts across the Franco-German and archival spectrums to discuss questions such as “Why do we archive, how do we archive, and for whom do we archive?” The backdrop of Cold War memory not only gave the forum additional gravitas but also helped anchor the theoretical topics at hand to a pragmatic framework.

Among the different discussions and experts, I found myself intrigued by the vast possibilities of what we can archive and why we preserve these records. Much social and popular history relies on niche archives, emanating from or pertaining to small sectors of the population, often individual people. Our roundtable participants made clear that scholars are well skilled at prioritizing documentary records. We design archival policies reflecting our preferences for certain collections of “papers” over others. We honor some for shedding light on a greater historical era, some for illuminating the biographical influences of an artistic oeuvre, and others for comprising familial memory. We’re often, but certainly not always, comfortable delegating collections to specific guardians. Governments or public repositories cover some territory; private groups take others. Occasionally, they collide, such with the Google Books Library Project.

Aside from the opportunity to consider fundamental challenges facing modern archives, I enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the proceedings. As a student of material culture, I’ve largely focused on matters of tangible heritage, such as preserving ancient artifacts but I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to enter the world of intangible heritage.

As such, I found particularly striking Madeline Ritter’s discussion of the challenges of archiving the intangible. Ritter heads Tanzfonds Erbe, a German foundation working to promote and preserve dance heritage. Dance is inherently ephemeral. A lost language can be revived. A recipe, like a music score, can guide the performance and realization of the work at hand, though of course, the ingredient list and the score do not purport to replicate the master’s handiwork. But a playbill alone cannot recreate even the shadow of a performance. I found the necessity of conscious planning in preserving such works intriguing. Capturing a fleeting dance requires deliberate preparation. Unlike assorted collections of records or documents, one rarely becomes the accidental trustee of a dance. Preserving dance also yields numerous other challenges. Music or text may speak differently to different publics, but the format will remain two dimensional. An audience’s perception of a dance, however, depends on its perspective and placement relative to the performers. Moreover, changing technology can render certain recording formats obsolete. Capturing a dance thus requires planners to balance immediate needs with a careful flexibility to ensure that the recording endures.

Missing from these discussions, however, was a study of natural loss as positive phenomena, rather than an archivist’s archnemesis. The Berlin wall of balloons pays homage to a symbol of a dramatic past but does not seek to recreate the experience of the living behind the wall. As we seek to balance access with the preservation of intangible heritage, let us similarly seek to honor the ephemeral by considering what we archive and why.

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