Producing meaning and the archive

The archive is a gathering together of signs (in the form of objects), but it would be a mistake for one to believe that it is the archive alone that makes meaning. ‘The meanings of objects are constructed from the position from which they are viewed.’(Eilean Cooper, 2000) The fact that objects are collected together in an archive does not change the position from which they are viewed. Thus, it is the viewer, and everything that calls to mind: gender, race, age, language, education level, and most importantly memory in relation to these things, which makes meaning.

The meaning of the archive is malleable precisely because it calls forward memory. The way that the Culturas de Archivo project, for example, deals with this malleability is to exhibit archive objects from government archives, etc. without any explicit context. There are labels with the objects that lead to a text about the object. What this does is to focus on the relationship between memory and the production of meaning through the absence of a proposed meaning. The way that I choose to put this malleability forward is to make available a surplus of proposed meanings, which were and are produced by the archive users.

Proposing meaning and producing meaning is not the same thing. Meanings can be proposed by a museum (or other exhibiting body – curators, institutions, etc.) but it is the viewer, the public, the individual who produces meaning as they encounter an object. There is no way to control what meaning will be produced by an object, or a collection of objects. Understanding this distinction is important for understanding this project because what I am trying to do is rethink the production of meaning as it relates to memory and the archive. The way that I am doing this is to keep the residue of an encounter with an object, a trace of the production of meaning, directly with the object. Museum exhibitions are a gathering together of archive objects in order to propose meanings but the residue of the meanings that are produced by the public are not kept in a direct and legible way with the object, in the archive. After an exhibition, there is no way to access the produced meanings (as opposed to the proposed meanings) through the object itself.