Archives in Context? Reflections on Changing Forms of Fieldwork

By Timur Hammond, Syracuse University, USA

‘Decontextualization’ – the capacity for statements and objects to be removed from the contexts of their production, and put to a different use ­- has become an increasingly important theme of contemporary conversations.  Although this practice is by no means unique to the present moment, decontextualization has taken on a different form in a world increasingly shaped by algorithms, filters, and technologically mediated search, all of which facilitate removing objects from their contexts. From the artist Jenny Odell (especially her 2015 project, The Bureau of Suspended Objects) to the technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci,  a wide range of writers, artists, scholars, and critics are exploring how we might rediscover, and make visible, the contexts of objects that have been decontextualized. This question is especially important for scholars who work in archives today. Indeed, trying to answer that question brought me back to one of my first experiences conducting archival research.

In 2012, I was trying to find the archive of the Council for the Preservation of Antiquities (in Turkish, Muhafaza-ı Asar-ı Atika Encümeni), a group that worked during the last decade of the Ottoman Empire and the first decades of the Republic of Turkey to identify, document, and advocate for the staggering range of antiquities located in the country. I was in the process of undertaking my dissertation research in the Istanbul district of Eyüp, and I thought that the Council’s archive might give me insight into how that district changed in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The district of Eyüp is important and noteworthy for a myriad of reasons, but one of them is the sheer density of religious buildings at the district’s center: There are mosques, medreses, tombs, soup kitchens, libraries, and Sufi lodges at every turn, to say nothing of the sprawling cemeteries that are located between them.

For centuries, many of these buildings were embedded within, and helped to sustain, a whole set of relationships – not only religious ones, but also Eyüp’s social, cultural, political, and economic relationships. Following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, many of these buildings’ connections to their contexts were dramatically reworked by the reforms that we usually gloss as the ‘secularizing’ reforms of 20th century Turkey. This brings me back to what I was trying to do in 2012: Find one archive to tell one part of this much bigger story from a very specific place.

Because the Council had been dissolved and folded into a new institution, and because that institution had in turn been folded into another bureaucracy, it took a little bit of searching to find the archive of Council for the Preservation of Antiquities. Eventually, I found it housed in a dark hallway on a floor of the offices of the High Council for the Preservation of Cultural and Natural Assets (Kültür ve Tabiat Varlıklarını Koruma Yüksek Kurulu). That’s the story from which I begin my article, recently published in Area. When I first entered the archive, I was filled with excitement at what I thought was the ‘discovery’ that would give me access to one small part of ‘what really happened.’ What I found, however, was a mess of paper! The method of ‘working with’ that I outline in this paper was my attempt to materially and imaginatively reconstruct the contexts of this archive, and thus to make sense of the mess of paper that I found.

Figure 2: Photograph of folder “Istanbul Record File no. 49.” (Photo: author)

In speaking to one small part of this broader conversation about decontextualization, I hope that the article also speaks to two audiences. One audience would be those interested in the specific trajectories of Istanbul’s urban transformations. What are the various institutions and organizations who sought to change the city? How did they encounter the city’s people and the buildings within which they lived? How did these institutions actually work? In Istanbul – as in any other city – urban change is never an undifferentiated project. By paying attention to small objects, this paper helps to illuminate one part of a much more complex and many-textured process.

At the same time, this paper also seeks to speak to a much broader set of methodological conversations within geography and other disciplines about how we – as researchers – might write about, and thus make sense one of, the places in which we work: The archive. A great deal of research over the past decade has pushed geographers to be more reflexive about the uneven and unequal relationships that shape archival fieldwork. I make one contribution to that conversation by providing what I (and others) have termed a method of ‘working with.’ In this case, this interpretive method helped me think about the archive from a different position. Instead of thinking about the documents in the archive as things that reflected a geography I thought I already knew, this method of ‘working with’ pushed me to explore (and in some cases imagine) how these documents were connected to the world beyond.

As a last note, I think the paper also reminds us about the iterative nature of research process. Even inscrutable objects and moments of failure can in fact generate a different understanding of the world.

About the Author: Timur Hammond is Assistant Professor of Geography at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

Hammond, T. Papering, arranging, and depositing: Learning from working with an Istanbul archive. Area. 2019; 00: 1– 9.

Feature image caption: Figure 1: View of Nakkaş Hasan Paşa Tomb and Mosque of Eyüp Sultan Mosque from the Mosque of Zal Mahmut Paşa, Eyüp, Istanbul, 1933 (SALT Research, Ali Saim Ülgen Archive, TASUH0717, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

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