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Feel Your Way: Emotion, Power and Empathy in the Archive

From left to right: To’asavili Tuputala, Lucy Zee, Saraid de Silva Cameron and Louise Tu’u in conversation at Going West, 8 Sep 2019

Nina Finigan on how centering emotion acts as a catalyst to critique power and the myth of neutrality, and why it is essential to developing inclusive and self-reflexive archives

What words come to mind when we hear the word ‘archive’? Perhaps: academic, static, exclusive. What if instead words like emotion and empathy came to mind? Emotions are a fundamental part of human experience, helping us understand the world and connect with each other and our histories. They also form a vital backbone of archival collections, often serving as a primary motivation for their collection and preservation before entering the institutional context. Yet emotion and emotional engagement with archives remains largely unexplored from within the sector. Why might this be? And what might be gained by centering emotion?

This article will first explore the reasons why emotions and emotional engagement have been sidelined in archival contexts in favour of supposedly ‘objective’ academic engagement. Positing that the elevation of the latter has its roots in the hierarchical dualisms associated with Western Enlightenment thought, central to this discussion will be an examination of how hegemonic power functions in archives and how emotional engagement with collections might help us interrogate and resist such paradigms.

Drawing on examples from my recent research and public engagement work I will illustrate how centering emotion can reframe archives, positioning them as spaces of authentic human experience and empathy. As well as reaching outside the institution, I will also discuss how these projects have acted as catalysts to critique power and the myth of neutrality from within the archive.

Finally, bringing together the above theoretical and practical discussion with the notion that emotional connection is a driver of empathy and action, I will explore why centering emotion is essential to developing inclusive, open and self-reflexive archives.

Recipes from many Races. 1945. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library

Emotion and the Archive
“You decide to write down all the recipes you learnt in Sri Lanka. Unconsciously planning for a time when the tastes you can still remember might be accessible. You also buy every recipe book that even mentions curry.

The women on these books all look so nice. Lynne, Lynette, Linda, Alison, Jo, Alison again. They have cropped hair and thick rings on their hands and they seem very confident. And their confidence gives YOU confidence. You make steamed pudding, egg sandwiches, you try out lasagna and creamed spinach and yorkshire puddings. Honestly the kids go mad for anything that isn’t from your part of the world, so at least it gets them to eat.

Very interesting the way these women make curry. There’s a lot of sultanas. And apples. Why do they keep trying to put fruit in it? And sausages? You show the books to Rienzi and he’s as confused as you are. Recipes From Many Races even has something called “Madras Lobster” which uses curry powder, crayfish, apples AND sultanas. You decide not to try this.” (1)

In September 2019, writers Saraid de Silva Cameron, Louise Tu’u, To’asavili Tuputala, and Lucy Zee presented new work inspired by Auckland Museum’s documentary heritage collection at Auckland’s annual Going West Writers Festival. The above excerpt is from (playwright, actor, podcaster, journalist and writer) Saraid’s piece, which told the story of her grandmother Mitzi’s migration from Singapore, to Sri Lanka, to England and finally to Aotearoa New Zealand through the interwoven narratives of food, movement, identity, grief and resilience. The project, titled UNFILTERED, had presented the writers with the following proposition: “This project is rooted in the impossible entanglements of identity, diaspora, decolonial desire and curatorial activism addressing the question, ‘whose memories, identities and experiences are reflected in the collections of colonial museums?”

Drawing inspiration from our collections was not necessarily an easy or objective task for the writers. For some it presented the potentially painful process of searching for narratives that reflected their family’s stories or experiences in some way, only to find that these stories were simply not there or if they were, were presented through the lens of another.

As we explored the collection together and our discussions progressed, Saraid talked about her Mitzi’s arrival in New Zealand in the 1970s. After a brief stint in rural north Otago the family finally settled in Invercargill — a small town in New Zealand’s deep south. As she reflected on the difficulty and culture-shock of such a relocation, Saraid circled back to the idea of centering her piece on food — specifically food and grief.

To inspire her piece, Saraid chose a cookbook entitled Recipes from many Races. Published in 1945, the book presented ‘ethnic’ cuisine, pared down and diluted for a white, western palette. Saraid and I marveled and laughed over the ubiquitous presence of sultanas in many of these recipes. Always, always sultanas.

Despite the comedy and cultural cringe, within the pages of this book Saraid found threads of her grandmother’s story — the grief of leaving home and forging a life in a new and strange land, far from all she had known and held dear. A story full of adaptation and discomfort but also growth. A story that could be told in endless ways but somehow food provided a landscape on to which Mitzi’s story could be written.

We all know the special and particular way food transmits emotion — a simple memory of a taste and or a smell can transport us to another place and time. Marcel Proust wrote of this phenomenon in his seminal work In Search of Lost Time, in which the narrator bites into a freshly baked madeleine cake dipped in tea and is instantly flung into a vivid memory of childhood. Drawing on similar ideas, Saraid was interested in exploring how food was at once a soothing balm and a source of pain for her grandmother — providing comfort, continuity and familiarity yet also reinforcing an ever-present sense of loss and melancholy. Saraid’s piece revealed this with humor and heartbreak. Equal measures of grief and hope.

Saraid’s exploration of the archive and her finished piece were powerful not because they told an historically accurate narrative or used a cookbook to trace the history of the addition of sultanas to westernized Sri Lankan recipes, but because they reflected an emotional journey and connection. Something about this approach felt radical. I realized this was because it challenged traditionally accepted modes of engagement with archives and archival collections which tend to value distance and so-called objectivity when dealing with historic documents. As the research phase of this project progressed, I became increasingly interested in how emotion and emotional engagement and interpretation of collections might provide opportunities to reframe archives and to examine and disrupt those traditional forms of engagement. I realised that centering emotion was about challenging hegemonic power.

Emotion and Power
“The ones doing the looking are giving themselves the power to define…” (2)

If we were to think of more words that are associated with archives perhaps they might be: objective, authoritative, verifiable. These words are part of archival vernacular and understood by many to be positive — affording archives a kind of reliability that can only come from having a comfortable distance from a subject. The studied and the studier. The veil of neutrality. However, these words are not neutral. They are anything but neutral. Complex histories of exclusion and privilege are written into their DNA. This has long been challenged by Indigenous scholars like Linda Tuhiwai-Smith whose landmark publication Decolonizing Methodologies outlined the fallacy of the so-called ‘objective’ western academic research model. Rather, scholars like Tuhiwai-Smith have identified such paradigms as exploitative tools of the colonial project. These ways of seeing and doing (which include the use of language) are embedded in the foundation of our archival spaces too, establishing the kinds of interactions that are deemed acceptable and the kinds that aren’t. Emotion has had no place in this context. To interrogate this construct and the complex power dynamics that inform it, we must look to the beginnings of the modern archive and to where the dualism of emotion and objectivity emerged.

Dualism and The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment dominated European thought, politics and cultural life from the 17th to the 19th century. A movement that valued empiricism and rationality above all, this was also the era of European colonial expansion. Partly driven by a desire to understand, measure and categorize the world and its inhabitants, this era also saw the birth of the modern museum and archive, as well as related institutions like zoos, and the expansion of universities. These were spaces that would institutionalise these paradigms, establishing what kinds of knowledge and enquiry were legitimate and what kinds were not, establishing the cognitive frameworks that continue to underpin many of our ways of seeing, doing and thinking in westernised, colonised contexts. As Tuhiwai-Smith has outlined these ways of seeing are “…underpinned by a cultural system of classification and representation, by views about human nature, human morality and virtue, by conceptions of space and time, by conceptions of gender and race.” (3) The modern museum and archive are a part of this project.

Within such a hierarchical construct not everything can be equal and by that same token everything must have a counterpoint or an opposite. In this context I want to highlight the dualistic separation between emotion and rationality:

• Rationality — coded as objective, authoritative, neutral, male
• Emotion — coded as subjective, untrustworthy, irrational, female

One of these represents the idealised state of the enlightened archive and the other, does not. Archival scholars Terry Cooke and Joan Schwartz have outlined that this presents the archive as a “…neutral repositories of facts. Until very recently, archivists obliged by extolling their own professional myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity.” (4) We are now aware that neutrality has never existed in these spaces but the normalised objective rationalism of the archive still persists in frustratingly subtle ways.

Within the context in which I work, a war memorial museum, the absurdity of this dualism is most stark when we look to our archives around war and conflict. We hold thousands of collections that reflect the experiences of New Zealanders in times of conflict. Letters written to husbands, wives, sweethearts, mothers, fathers and friends. Expressions of love, hope, fear, disillusionment, and sadness call out from these pages and bear witness to the irrepressible human desire for connection even under the most difficult and urgent of contexts. And yet emotional interpretation of these collections is not the norm. We are accustomed to military histories which objectively outline movement of troops from here to there, the intricate details of battles, the tactical prowess of great and important men. But the intimate, emotional story of war, the one revealed by these archives which depict a different facet of conflict (and of masculinity), are not so well-known or illustrious. These documents are profoundly moving and reveal something universal about the human experience. But they are intimate, they are emotional, and they are not history with a capital ‘H.’

How does centering emotion challenge hegemonic power?
This example reveals precisely how hegemonic power functions in these spaces and how internalised and deeply embedded it is in our practices and approach to ‘doing history.’ Centering emotion provides an opportunity to ask ‘why’ and a lens to reframe these archives that have hitherto been predominantly understood on objective, neutral terms. By disrupting these traditional modes of engagement and interpretation, the absurdity and reductive nature of these binaries is brought to the fore.

UNFILTERED challenged power and the dualism of these spaces in different ways. The purpose of the project was to bring critical voices to bear on our collections. In this context, emotion was used as a tool to challenge those traditional and accepted ways of seeing and doing but also as a way to center voices and perspectives that have been traditionally excluded or silenced within these contexts. To echo the words of Maori film-maker Mirata Mita, the project was about changing the “ones doing the looking.”

At the center of both of these examples is critical institutional self-reflection. Thinking about emotion in archives invites us to analyse our spaces and ask — what underlying and inherited paradigms have defined our understanding of these spaces? And how is power created, wielded and reinforced by this? And crucially, what can we do to challenge and deconstruct it?

Emotion and Empathy
“Empathy is a wellspring for forging common values, asking us to redefine the old Cartesian view “I think therefore I am,” with a more inclusive “You are, there I am.” (5)

When reflecting on what drew me to work with archives and continues to stimulate curiosity, it is not an interest in them as repositories of neutral documents. Rather it is a feeling of emotional connection to the people and lives held within such collections — each letter, diary or document reflecting a part of the story of the human experience, specific and unique yet universal. Ordinary yet extraordinary. It is this feeling of connection which resonates through my work and fuels my love for what I do. This resonance is about empathy.

We all know how important storytelling is in fostering empathy. Research published by neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows how stories not only create the environment for empathy to thrive but how they actually change and shape our brain chemistry: “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.” (6)

Stories and storytelling therefore are fundamental to our development as connected, empathetic beings. This research has also shown that personal and emotionally compelling stories are the ones that have the greatest neurological impact. (7) As museums and archives increasingly claim that one of their missions is to create empathetic citizens, then surely emotion and emotional engagement with collections must not only be encouraged but actually form a core part of their missions.

Projects like UNFILTERED provide opportunities to explore how collections can be used in this way. The ‘personal’ was a thread that ran through all of the writer’s pieces — each took strands from their own families’ stories or their lived experiences and wove them into new narratives that indeed transported the listening audience into other worlds. With each writer taking a collection item and making it speak to their personal story, the project showcased the infinite interpretability of archival collections and how every object, document or photograph can be understood from myriad different perspectives. This demonstrates that there is no one way ‘in’ to our collections but that rather all engagement is dependent on context, perspective and lived experience. If empathy can be described as “the heightened responsiveness to another’s emotional experience” (8) then museums and archives are perfectly situated as empathy-building institutions if we use our resources to allow opportunities to step into each other’s stories and experiences.

Coming back to Saraid’s piece, Mitzi’s story is spliced in half with the sudden death of her husband, Reinzi: “This man you fell for in 3 days, made 5 different homes with, and raised 4 children beside, dies just inside your front door, cheeks still warm from tennis.”

Saraid writes of her grandmother picking up the pieces of her life, again through the medium of food. The narrative concludes poignantly with Mitzi’s concerned neighbour giving her that most iconic symbol of ‘Kiwi’ identity — a leg of lamb: “The husband presents it to you, wrapped in paper, heavy and grand in his arms. He tells you a roast is just the thing for a chilly night like this one. Why do they always talk about the weather? You smile back at him as big as you can and take it to the kitchen where you only unwrap and Stare at it. So big. So dead. These people would “bang it” in the oven. Maybe fry off the fat on the sides of it first. Maybe rub salt and pepper into it? Rosemary or something, at a pinch. On the table like that just, heavy. You and this leg of lamb in this house. You get the sharp knife. You take onions, garlic, ginger, chillis you’ve grown here, yourself, and cloves. You pound the garlic into a paste with the ginger. You put the rice on. You turn this huge, foreign thing into small understandable cubes. You move around the kitchen slowly and surely. Hands making this smaller, that saltier, this softer and sweeter. You make lamb biryani and it tastes like…home.”

Here we are transported into Mitzi’s world as she grapples with this foreign slab of meat — representative of the apparent incongruity of these two worlds and the struggle to fit them together in a way that makes sense. But this story, and Mitzi’s triumph over the lamb, is one of survival — Saraid’s monument to her grandmother and an ode to the resilience of women and migrants. It is unique but also universal — the story of so, so many in a migrant nation like Aotearoa New Zealand.

In a world that increasingly seeks to label difference as a weakness and something to be feared, we need more stories like this. Research out of the Greater Good Centre at the University of California Berkeley shows how museums (and archives) are especially placed to do this work. As scholar and editor of the recently published volume Fostering Empathy Through Museum, Elif M. Gokcigdem writes that museums …help us gain a perspective-altering lens that awakens our sense of connectedness, respect, compassion, presence, and purpose. In this way, museums are uniquely positioned to help bridge the empathy gap so prominent in our world.” (9)

UNFILTERED was about sharing this “perspective altering lens” and an attempt to shift both the institution’s and the public’s perception on the purpose of an archive in the 21st century. If we are to be these organisations that seek to “bridge the empathy gap” then we must continue to move outside of our own walls and connect with new audiences. We must work with creative people — with storytellers and writers and artists who can find new ways to engage and interpret our collections. And we must be ready for the critical voices that question why our archives have traditionally been exclusive and exclusionary spaces.

What does it all mean?
“to motivate means, above all, to move and to transmit an emotion.” (10) Emotion is an active word. Talking about emotion means talking about change and transformation both at an institutional or personal level. As GLAM organisations increasingly state that part of their missions is to be spaces of connection that foster empathy and develop active citizens, we must find new paradigms to explore what this means and how we might enact it.

As a fundamental driver of empathy, emotion and emotional engagement must be an integral part of this paradigm. As marine biologist, author and conservationists Rachel Carson wrote, “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” (11)

Carson understood that the way to foster empathy between people and our natural world was through emotional connection. Her writing was key in advancing the global environmental movement, illustrating how important emotion is in spurring people into action and then change. This idea is indeed gaining currency with some museum practitioners now advocating that empathy should be embedded as a core value of the 21st century museum.(12) However, before a museum or archive utilize any new concept as an institutional value, a means of public engagement or as a new piece of strategic policy it first must examine its own context and work from the inside out.

First and foremost, we must embed a culture of critical thinking in our organisations. As museums and archives we have a special appreciation of context — this underpins the ethos behind much of what we do including our collecting and research practices. However, this concern must also extend to our institutional contexts with an emphasis on examining how we work and why, and the power dynamics that lie beneath our practices and ways of thinking and doing. I believe this is a critical function of the 21st century museum and where our inherent value lies — in being spaces that can uniquely bring the past, the present and the future together in ways that make us look closely at where we have been and where we want to go as a society. Emotion is one lens through which to examine these paradigms. It provides a framework to critically examine the complex histories of our organisations in ways that shift practice and encourage dialogue from the inside-out. Concurrently centering emotion also opens the door to new kinds of engagement which prioritise the human story and attempt to foster connection and understanding between our many publics.

Projects like UNFILTERED illustrate how interlinked emotion, power and empathy are in our GLAM spaces. But more importantly it illustrates how each project — whether it be an exhibition or public programme, for an academic publication or a public performance — should be used as an opportunity to examine and deconstruct our practice, perspectives and ways of working. Such critical thinking will ensure we are ready to respond and adapt as 21st century archives.

Nina Finigan
Curator Manuscripts, Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Aotearoa New Zealand


1. Saraid de Silva Cameron, Going West Writers Festival, Auckland, 8 September 2019.
2. Merata Mita as cited in Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, (Zed Books, 2012), p. 61.
3. Tuhiwai-Smith, p. 46.
4. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory, Archival Science, 2 (2002), p.1.
5. Roman Krznaric as cited in Jon Carfagno and Adam Reed Rozan, “Adopting Empathy: Why Empathy Should be a Required Core Value for all Museums—Period” in Fostering Empathy Through Museums, edited by Elif M. Gorkcigdem, (Rowman & Littlefield 2016), p. 204.
6. Paul J. Zak, “The future of storytelling: Paul Zak,” 19 Feb 2013, video, 4:57 https://youtube/DHeqQAKHh3M.
7. Paul J. Zak, “How stories change the brain,” in Greater Good Magazine, University of California Berkeley (retrieved 15 Feb 2020).
8. Zorana Ivcevic and Nadine Maliakkal, “Fostering Empathy and Creativity Skills through the Arts” in Fostering Empathy through Museums, edited by Elif M. Gockigdem (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), p. 4.
9. Elif M. Gokcigdem, “Five Ways Museums Can Increase Empathy in the World,” in Greater Good Magazine, University of California Berkeley, Jan 9 2017
10. Xavier Montserrat as cited in Mirela Popa and Irina Salantâ, “The Emotions’ Role in the Motivational Process,” in Managerial Challenges of the Contemporary Society, 6 (2013), p. 42.
11. Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (Harper and Row, 1956), p. 47. 12. Carfagno and Rozan, p. 201

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