What is an archive?

What is an archive? A collection of things? A gathering of objects? What purpose does it serve? For who, for what? The archive, as modern definitions might imply, is a storehouse of material and/or immaterial goods. A litany for and not against its institutional or individual bearer, the archive speaks through its collected documents. Books, newspaper articles, artwork, photographs, brochures, recordings, oral histories, biographies detailing its progenitors, financial records, etc.. The archive is representative of a concept, as archived by the archivist, institutional identity, or individual responsible for describing and cataloguing its contents. This is the archontic power, through consignation as Derrida defines it, “the act of consigning through gathering together signs […] coordinate[s] a single corpus, a system or synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration” (2). This configuration is the structure of the archive. Unity, its representative exterior. The impression that the archive leaves on us is the message that it articulates.

The archive speaks through its signs. Its collection of materials, representative of the identity that it stands in for. In the case of the Ringling estate, each constituent part represents the whole. From the Ca’d’Zan to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to the Ringling Library, these parts are indicative of a larger image. Each one enclosing a piece of the archive. The Ca’d’Zan contains an imprint of John and Mable’s summer home, enclosing their furniture, decor, clothes, beds, miscellaneous baubles, John’s ties, etc.. Their lives. The museum contains their tastes, great paintings and sculptures of the renaissance with their rich oils and gilded frames. Last, the library contains thousands of volumes of book and other printed materials, vast information relating pieces of the archive’s mission as described by its bearer. The archive contains a legacy. A history, an identity. A collection of signs unified by their enclosement, their gathering together. Parts speak through the whole, speaking through the archive.

-Corey Culbertson


Works Consulted

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996. Print.


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