Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The National Archive of Honduras and state irresponsibility

That's the headline on an editorial by historian Edgar Soriano Ortiz published in Sunday's edition of Honduras' Tiempo.

This documentary resource, urgently important for the history of the country, was moved in 2007 to the Antigua Casa Presidencial, a building turned into a national monument and at the time designated as the home of a new center for documentary research. It began the processes Soriano Ortiz notes are urgently needed:
A process of classification and advanced digitization that would permit investigators and people interested in the assignment of legal titles to land to have access with better facilities.

Soriano Ortiz reports particular neglect of the national archives during the current administration, saying that
in the present administration the situation of the National Archive has becoming increasingly chaotic to the extent that for the past half year, the colonial document collection, that has documents from 1605, fell on the floor after the old shelving on which they were supported collapsed and the authorities of the Secretariat of Culture, Arts and Sports are stalling the topic of buying new and strong shelves on which to place this valuable national patrimony. Without doubt, someone here is visibly irresponsible, it is necessary to demand responsibility of Tulio Mariano González (the Secretary of Culture) and the rest of the officials so that they don't continue to commit such barbarities.

This neglect, he argues, is not random. The National Archives can be threatening to people in power, and he says that Honduran intellectuals have noticed a pattern of "intentional neglect" of cultural institutions under the current administration:
the institutions that safeguard the cultural patrimony and the few artistic spaces have been condemned for a long time to intentional neglect. These spaces are vital to fortify civic participation and consequently are a threat to the political and economic elites that govern the country by force.

That may sound like an extreme claim, but there has been an incredible decay of management of cultural institutions under the appointees to the Secretary of Culture and Arts position, starting with the amazingly ignorant Myrna Castro, appointed during the de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti.

The pattern has been pretty clear: withdrawn support from grass-roots initiatives that supported local historians; a renewed focus on Copan, valuable as a tourist attraction, to the exclusion of support of the development of other archaeological sites as spaces for public understanding of the broader history of the nation; the lack of funding for major historic museums; all of these are part of a pattern, within which the neglect of the National Archives is a consistent piece.

Is the issue that knowledge is power, so encouraging public development of historical knowledge is threatening?

Archival documents do offer a specific opportunity that may challenge power: land documents can be used to support legal claims when land has been alienated from communities or individuals marginalized in Honduran society, such as indigenous people or the Garifuna.

Documents from the recent past were recovered from the National Hemeroteca (the newspaper archive) during the de facto regime, showing that the architects of the coup were themselves part of an earlier attempt to change the constitution to allow re-election to the presidency.

So yes, a case can be made that the neglect is a deliberate response to a sense that history can threaten the powerful.

But equally, it may simply be that appointing unqualified people to positions dealing with cultural affairs introduces management that doesn't understand that a fragile piece of paper from 1605 has any value whatsoever.

Myrna Castro clearly had no time for the past, or even for conventional forms of culture: she famously said "Fashion, too, is culture" when called on using the ministry's resources for Tegucigalpa Fashion Week in 2009.

Bernard Martinez, her successor, revealed a bizarre understanding of the very word culture, not as a shared heritage of a people, but perhaps more in line with the nineteenth century idea of culture as "cultivation", an attribute of the cultured class.

Myrna Castro's hand-picked appointee to run the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, whose expertise is in management, has shown confusion about the role of the Institute (which is to protect the cultural heritage and share knowledge with the public), describing his goals as increasing tourist visitation to Copan, before completely falling into pseudo-science with his outrageous claims that "Ciudad Blanca" is a vast and unknown city lurking in the Honduran jungle.

Curiously, Soriano Ortiz describes the neglect of the National Archives as a constant feature of modern Honduran policy, missing the opportunity to underline another possible reason for the active policy of neglect that has afflicted the cultural sector of Honduras.

In fact, during the administration of Manuel Zelaya, the Minister of Culture, Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, was a professional historian who supported all the programs that were abandoned or actively reversed by Myrna Castro and her successors.

He appointed as head of the Institute of Anthropology and History another Honduran historian, Darío Euraque, who moved the archives to its present home in the Antigua Casa Presidencial, and lost his position in part by publicly opposing the attempt to use that historic building for military reserve officers, a violation of the 1954 Convention of the Hague.

Euraque did more than just move the documents into this space. He created the Centro de Investigaciones Históricas de Honduras (CDIHH), which (among other things) began the process of digitization Soriano Ortiz notes is critically needed.

Scholars and artists called attention to the disaster in Honduran culture, publishing memos in August 2010 from Bernard Martinez, saying his ministry needed office space, and asking the director of the National Art Gallery to provide space for the National Archives.

The tragedy of the National Archives is not just collapsing shelves and foot-dragging about replacing them. It is a continued outcome of the coup of 2009.

Whether current neglect is malice, crafty policy to prevent populist use of records, or just plain ignorance, it is not just Honduras' loss: the entire world is diminished when we lose the capacity for surprise about the past that primary documents can give us.

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