CROSSING NORTH 17: A BOX IN THE ATTIC
Helene Larsson Pousette: I thought it was very interesting in Sweden that I couldn't find so much material or handbooks about how do you actually do when you archive yourself? And there were very few books written about how do you actually do practically to find representation in archives, because you have to have a little bit different tools to find representation—for example, women—in archives, you have to look in a different way. And I realized that, and I also realized that there are a lot of very interesting people out there that do this, for example, documentary filmmakers— they are using the archives to find a story. So I started to interview artists, filmmakers, writers, and journalists about their work. And they had all different answers to my question, how do you find representation in the archives? And I thought we need to put together a handbook about that. But the other thing—that's why this book is called Arkivism [Full title in Swedish: Arkivism: En Handbok, edited by Helene Larsson Pousette & Lina Thomsgård, Stockholm: Volante & Stockholms Kvinnohistoriska, 2021]. It's a combination of “activism” and “archives” in Swedish, because you also need to take the responsibility yourself to archive yourself. That's very, very important. So it's also a handbook on how do you do that? How do you archive yourself (how should you think?) or your mother or your grandmother? How do you do that?
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Colin Gioia Connors: Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.
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Helene Larsson Pousette is the Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington DC, where along with the Cultural Program Officer, she is responsible for promoting Swedish culture and arts throughout the United States. Helene is also the co-founder and former head of collections, research and development at Stockholm’s Museum of Women’s History, and she has worked as a curator of contemporary art projects in connection with the historical archives at the Swedish History Museum. Last November, Helene visited the University of Washington to discuss her work on museum development in assistant professor Amanda’s Doxtater’s graduate seminar on Archives.
After class, Helene, Amanda, and I sat down in the studio to talk about the importance of archives, and why listeners at home might want to think about archiving themselves or someone they know. Death is a part of life, and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the past two years have prompted many to ponder how we will be remembered when we’re gone. Helene argues in her new book, Arkivism, that archiving our lives is a way to take control of what stories are told about us in the future. Whether you preserve your memories in an official archive or keep them in a box in the attic, Helene argues that archiving yourself is a form of activism. Not only does it have the power to change how we see others in the past, but also how we see one another in the present.
One of the issues Helene has contended with in her career is how to make visible the lives of people who have been rendered invisible by former cultural and curatorial practices. Those considered unworthy of preservation, most often women, minorities, and the poor, often find poor representation in the archives. These disparities can lead to incomplete or inaccurate views of the past, which affect perceptions of people in the present. As Helene’s work on women’s history demonstrates, this disparity does not accurately reflect the importance of women to history. Even finding those women whose stories are preserved in the archives can be a challenge. Today’s curators have inherited catalog systems from their predecessors that do not always reflect the true dimensions of their collections, and curators often have a difficult task uncovering the stories of socially-undervalued individuals. Helene starts our conversation by explaining some of the challenges she faces in Sweden when trying to bring under-represented groups to light.
Helene: The categorization from the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, that have followed with the digitalization of the databases, meaning that we are still living with the categorization that was formulated in the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, but we are living in a completely different world today. The objects are having many stories to tell, but perhaps you don't see that in the databases. And how do you do that? That's a huge issue right now, how can you actually add stories? Can you add stories to these objects that you have in the collections?
Colin: It sounds like the main way to reclaim these stories, these hidden stories of women that are waiting there to be discovered, is that you need dedicated time and people with skills to go and look for them.
Helene: Yeah, and you need to have different methods, because, and tools to do that, because perhaps women are not named in the archives. And then you need to find another way to get into the archives and perhaps dig deeper or dig in another place, and be very open to what you find, and follow the traces you get of a woman. So it's a— it's like a crime story, almost, when you start digging in the archive. Or it doesn't need to be an archive, perhaps it is also a box in the attic, or a suitcase full with things, or your grandmother's house. That can be like an archive. But, but how do you collect and preserve that kind of material is also very important.
When I've been interviewing women, and ask them, why don't you archive yourself? Why don't you even think of it as an option? Then I get the answer, “but who am I?” —like you say. “Who am I to—? I'm not important. I haven't done a big thing in my life. I'm not a politician or whatever.” But I think I can give an example: at the City Archive of Stockholm, they have an enormous big personal archive with the persons, individuals. And just 6% of that archive is women. And that is today. So how come is that? And what they told me when I talked with them was that women, they don't never come in with their own archives, but they are coming in with boxes with material from their husbands, or their brothers, or their fathers. But they don't archive themselves. So I don't know, is it depending on who you value in society, perhaps? Is it, are we all valued the same?
Colin: Or maybe we just need more men to come in to archive their mothers and their sisters and their wives?
Helene: —I haven't heard about that yet, but I'm looking forward, absolutely.
Colin: Yeah [*laughs*]. Six percent! My gosh, that's a huge difference.
Helene: Yeah. And only 15% of the named persons in history textbooks in Sweden, in 2016 when they made this investigation, were women. Fifteen percent! In Swedish history textbooks. And I think that is strange. But you can also look at Wikipedia. I can't remember the figures right now. But there are extremely few women compared with men in Wikipedia, for example. And there are a lot of people trying to address that, of course, but it goes very slow.
Colin: Yeah. I'm just thinking about archiving people in my family, who are older than I am, or those who have died. And for— I mean, we have lost a lot of people to COVID recently, and so a lot of families, I'm sure people who are listening to this, who will listen to this, can think of somebody in their lives who maybe they would have liked to have archived or is going through the process of dealing with all the things that that person left behind after their death. I know I lost someone recently to cancer, and spent a lot of time with this individual who, because of his illness knew that his death was coming. And we worked together to figure out what is going to go to whom and what to save, and a few of the objects that he had one of them he did donate to a museum here in Seattle. He donated the Utilikilt that he wore, which was one of the first Utilikilts made, that he would wear when he performed at choirs and things. And so now that's gone to, gone to a collection. And I guess I'm just curious, are more people coming forward? Or having more conversations? Has COVID in any way changed what kinds of things people are thinking about archiving?
Helene: I cannot answer that question how people have done that. I can just talk from personal situation, I lost my mother not too long ago. And of course, she had the huge house, and the family history, three generation back was in this house. And it was enormous, a lot of material. And when you lose someone, it's very hard to deal with that kind of material—photographs, letters, diaries, everything. It's, it's so emotional. So how do you deal with it? I think many are just throwing it away because they just don't want to deal with it. But I think it's important to gather all that material—try to, to keep it and to start to sort it in some way. Like you, I suppose, or have a conversation with that person as you had, which is— that's the best way of course, because sometimes you also would like to respect that person, and to give that person also the control over what is saved. In my mother's case, I was not able to do that because she got a stroke and died. So…but she was very clear about that she wanted this to be kept because it was also about her mother, and my father's mother and father. So it was important. So I used three months to just sort this during the summer and try to figure out what is it that I have? And I think for me, it is a— it's a way of showing respect for my family and my family's history. And of course now I made it possible for next generation to perhaps make research in this or, or write about it or do something with this material. But… like, the kilt you talked about, I hope the story also was connected to that, to that leaving over this object to the museum.
Yeah, and I, I need to say something about individuals because I think sometimes you need someone by your side that helps you out. It can be an archivist for example. They are treasures. But it can also be someone else that you talk to, or it is a curator— that is a function that I have had myself, facilitating this kind of process. And we need that kind of competence or persons that are guiding us through, sometimes very hard work. And sometimes also difficult because perhaps the issue is about your own death, or the death of your mother. So you need other people to talk to, to deal with these issues. And you need to have good teachers that give you also the tools to manage all these issues— because the archives, there’s endless possibility, if we treat them right, and if we add on.
I've been working a lot with contemporary collecting, meaning collecting something—stories or objects or comments or social media—from the present for the future history writing. So I've done a lot of that. And people are very eager to take part in that kind of programs or projects, because we, some of us, would like to leave some kind of trace behind. And that my story would mean something is important for many people. So I don't think it's hard to actually persuade people to be part of that kind of collection, or that giving, donating to a museum. Most people are very, very interested in that. And I've seen a few projects that have been very successful and extremely touching.
Colin: Well, what kind of advice would you give to listeners who maybe are thinking about this or going through a similar process of trying to deal with a past loved one’s—? How—how do you think about archiving material or preparing it to donate?
Helene: Oh, it's so different because there can be— it depends on the material. If it's objects, I think it's important to also to connect the story to the object because an object is an object. But if you have a story connected with it, you have a story of a life, perhaps, or a region or a city or a person, an individual. I think that is important. But I think it's also important to think about what would you like to have control over when you pass away. I know that many people want to throw away everything, you know, the diaries, the love letters, everything— but perhaps you shouldn't. But you can always define yourself that I don't want my children to take part of this material, but perhaps next generation in 20 years, or 50 years— to define that to think about it and define it and write it down and tell everyone around you what you would like to save for a future generation. And it's also depending on if you're leaving your material to an archive, or you just put it in a box and put it on the attic—you can do that as well—a suitcase with your material. But as long as you collect and try to, to have everything in one place—that's great—and help the persons after you're gone to actually take care of the material. But most people are afraid of death, and to think about your own death, and that you will be gone and someone else will take care of your things. That's also— you have to kind of master your mind, to set that mind to actually be comfortable that someone else—that you will die—and that someone else will perhaps find this material you leave behind essential, important, important for that family history or city history, whatever, or just your own personal story. It's—it can add very big value for your own life.
Colin: Yeah, I think that's a really big emotional journey, to get to the point to be thinking about your death and what's going to come afterwards. I think you're right, a lot of us are afraid of our own deaths, and we don't want to think about it or even imagine that we could possibly die. But I think that there are also a couple other fears that are very strong, like public speaking, a lot of us are afraid to get up in a room and speak to other people. I think also knowing that other people could read my love letters would terrify a lot of people, too. So if an archive receives a box of love letters, what are they going to do with it? How might that be used? I might be comfortable with passing that on to my children in my family. But why would I want to give that to a public archive?
Helene: Hmm. Perhaps because your love letters will tell something about you as a person, or a time, a certain time in Seattle's history. Or perhaps someone will find your love letters extremely thrilling and write a book about your love letters. I mean, you have absolutely no idea. Because you're dead.
Colin and Amanda Doxtater: [*laughs*]
Helene: But you don't need to give your love letters to an archive. You can also put them in a suitcase on the attic. And you can write that letter: “I don't want this-and-this person to read my love letters, but I want my grand-grand-grandchildren to read my love letters.” So you are in control over the material. The most beautiful films, the most beautiful documentary films, literature, theater pieces are based on archive material. I mean, and that's wonderful that we have these sources that can make a time visible for us or we can feel a time, and sometimes the literature can show us or give us something more than the, you know, your love letters, for example, perhaps. It's just material perhaps for someone, but through an artist they can also become light.
Colin: Could you tell me about one artist in particular, maybe that you've worked with, who is— whose work you feel has really transformed what is in the archives?
Helene: Yes, there is one writer in Sweden. She's called Fatima Bremmer. And she was writing a book— it took her five years to go through archive material from Ester Blenda Nordström— that was… front figure. She was actually the first female journalist in Sweden that started with wallraffing [undercover reporting], do you say so in English? …She took a job as a household keeper. And then she, she was a journalist, so she took this job and she didn't tell. And then she could write about this misery that a person of her standard was facing in a very harsh environment. And so she was wallraffing [undercover reporting]—I don't know the English expression for that.
Amanda: Maybe like “undercover reporting” or something like that?
Helene: Yeah, so she was the first one, and she also wrote children’s books. And she was an extremely important journalist in the beginning of 20th century, but we had no— I had no idea about her. But through this, this writer, Fatima Bremmer, when she was writing and used the archive material, she found a suitcase on an attic and she used that, but also a lot of other material, and— it's just a wonderful book. I don't know if it exists in English, but I can really recommend it: Ett jävla solsken it's called in Swedish [English title: Life in Every Breath: The Extraordinary Ester Blenda, translated by Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme].
Amanda: I love hearing about all of this very intimate, personal level sort of work with archives and objects and mourning and loss and, but a lot of your work, also—your background is, on a big scale of like, public art projects and museum pieces. And I'm curious how you see artists telling the stories of museum objects, for instance, in a different way than a museum curator could. Would you talk a little bit about your, your work in public art?
Helene: Mm hmm. Well, I've been working with artists and collections and archives, and it's fascinating. A lot of artists are very, very interested in digging into archives. And sometimes it's very hard to get access as an artist. You need to have someone that’s helping you in, and a curator like myself can be that—the door-opener for an archive. So my position as a curator is very important for that situation. But it's not always that you should perhaps invite an artist because an artist can take other ways than you think. So you have to be very, very open for the result of an archive digging that an artist is doing, you have to be very open for that and leave the process to be. That's my position, anyhow. I believe in the artistic freedom. I think that is very, very important and essential. So you have to think about why—why do you actually invite an artist? And do you take that chance, because perhaps sometimes you don't get what you thought you will get. But I love to work with artists. I love the not knowing. I think it's wonderful not knowing. And perhaps it's the same with archiving— You don't know. You leave something behind and how someone will deal with that material, you have absolutely no idea. But that is also your gift to the future.
Colin: I think probably most of the objects that I have are digital objects. I have so many photos on my computer. I don't do too much on Facebook or Instagram, but I know that a lot of people do share a lot of their lives in digital spaces. And I guess I'm struck by the fact of—I have no idea what the formats of—the digital formats of the future are going to be and whether I will have anything to leave behind when I'm gone. What kind of thoughts in archives are being given to digital formats and preserving the things that people make today, because the things that we make are not always material anymore.
Helene: Yeah. And when I, when I talk to people about this, the young people, the young generation says, “well, everything—my diaries, my letters—everything is digital. So of course it's preserved for the future.” That's not true. And that is one of the big challenges we have, because we are posting things on private companies' platforms. And we have no idea if Facebook will be there in 20 years, or how we will preserve our videos or photographs. We know for sure that we don't leave the passwords behind. Many people are not giving away their passwords to the computer. So perhaps you don't—someone will not find your material on your computer because you haven't left the passwords. But I think the archive, archives globally are having a huge task to find solutions for the digital massive information. I mean, all these photographs we are posting and having in our mobile phones or computers, how do we actually save them? And will we be richer in the future? —when it comes to archives—or will we be less rich? I don't know. The digitization of archives is fantastic, because much more people are getting access to the archives. But when it comes to individual, private archives, what will we lose? What we had 100 years ago was perhaps someone's diary that was, you know, left in a, in a box somewhere. But today, in 100 years, what will happen with this diary, or the memory of you? I don't know. I don't think we have solved that issue. Because the technique is also developing so fast the whole time.
Colin: I think that you mentioned this in your talk, and so I wanted to ask the devil's advocate question, which is, why do we need to be archiving things right now? What is the role that museums do that journalists don't do in telling the story of the present for the future?
Helene: I think it's dangerous to leave to media to actually write the history for us in the future. Because journalists and media is also always looking for the spectacular, almost always, and that is I think that is a little bit dangerous. We also need to have the voices of the people that was actually in the situation that we can think of as a historical moment. So ordinary people's feelings or suffering or joy for an event, and not just the media coverage of that event. I think that is crucial. And that is also a responsibility we have as women, but also as, perhaps, sometimes underrepresented groups. We need to take that responsibility and archive them ourselves. Because otherwise, we will not have that material for the future history writing because we use them archives to actually write history. And for many other reasons, also, it can be documentary films or literature, whatever. But we need to add diversity into the archives to be able to have a fair history writing in the future.
Amanda: It’s such a pleasure having you here, and such a treat. Thank you so much for sharing all of your experience and expertise and wisdom, and arkivism!
Helene: Yeah, arkivism! And thank you for having me; it’s such a pleasure being here.
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Colin: Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Today’s music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Visit scandinavian.washington.edu to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at scandinavian.washington.edu. Once again, that’s scandinavian.washington.edu.
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Release Date: February 17, 2022
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors.
At 01:05, Helene mentions her new book, Arkivism: En Handbok (in Swedish), which she co-edited with Lina Thomsgård, and which was initiated by Stockholm Museum of Women’s History and published in 2021 in collaboration with the independent publishing firm Volante. Find it at: https://volanteshop.com/bok/arkivism/
At 21:14, Helene mentions a Swedish biography of Ester Blenda Nordström, “Ett jävla solsken,” by Fatima Bremmer. It has been translated into English as Life in Every Breath: The Extraordinary Ester Blenda by Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme.
Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.