Around 1785 French architect Etienne Boullée, known for his never built visionary architectures, while performing a project for the National Library of Paris, wrote: “a nations’s most precious monument is certainly the one which preserves all the existing forms of knowledge” (1). Previously to 1789 the Archive as it is intended modernly didn’t exist. It originated from the breach with the old feudal system that the French Revolution implemented. Thus during Napoleon’s conquest in Italy, Joachim Murat, who was proclaimed King of Naples in 1808, declared  the institution of the General Archive of the Reign in which all the documents of the old Bourbon regime were to be collected and organized, introducing a new element: the use of all the archives became public (2). The documents that could’ve been copied from anyone from then on are the papers of the past, whose historic and documentary value was acknowledged thanks to the ceasing of a previous function. During the process of Italy’s unification and centralization of power the archives conquered the “palazzi” and their existence became a matter of space and places, of permission and denial. Right from the start it was clear that the “public” element was not the prevailing one, it would be instead the one of secrecy and exclusion (3).

In 2007 American artist Taryn Simon published a photo-book entitled “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (4), an inventory of what remains hidden in the United States. Simone captured spaces which were excluded from public access and connected to collective matters such as science, government, medicine, security. Through an analytical and political gesture, by showing the secrecy of these places and contexts, Simon’s “filing” work unveils the ways in which history hides.

Behind every photo is a work of research and archiving, set up as an informative text which links the image to a precise spatial and temporal situation which makes interpretation accessible and avoids fascination: the archive is not a Wunderkammer, but instead a relational system necessary to putting what exists into order, which launches an inevitable process of exclusion when writing its own story. Far from being a monument, when history is seen through the archive it always appears as biased and politically incorrect. The rejection of the authority principle can show itself as memory, personal and collective, and as a negotiation of the image’s value when it’s disconnected from its production context. Elisabetta Benassi’s book All I remember (5) literally picks up this challenge by selecting from the archives of the world’s most important newspapers all the back- side captions of those photographs which depicted memorable events of the 20th Century and which were forgotten. The artist constructs her book as a minor archive through elements that were not intentionally made to be exposed: memos, notes, and descriptions for the use of journalists.

“ Who said that a photocopy from the 80’s will be less worth than a parchment from the 14th Century?” (6)

The value of documents, and therefore of archives, can only lie within its use, a value that is not just historic anymore, but also productive and creative: it is in this context that the accessibility to those places where archives are produced and preserved becomes crucial to let knowledge itself possible.

Looking back towards the places which still stand as guardians of knowledge, while we are on the verge of the digital era, may not only make one think on the origin and therefore the future that awaits us, but also gives back those signs which were considered lost. In her photo-book Libraries (7) Candida Hofer transformed public spaces into organic visions of history; in the web of details the image read as a document restores into us the sense of an estranged knowledge, made of sacredness, silence, persistence, order and architecture. Hofer transforms the knowledge’s visibility into a vision of space, and if the library publicly displays knowledge as a gift received from history, the archive safeguards its pieces away from air and light. The places in which the archives are stored become the metonymies through which we can talk about the archive itself: beyond the physicality of the place which hides it, the archive remains a virtual experience that yet again only some renovated scriptures will transform into the modernity of new forms of knowledge.

Barbara Galli (Carrara 1976) works in publishing, photography, and research on documents and archives. Since 2012 she’s vice-president of the cultural Association “Osservatorio Spontaneo sul Territorio”, thanks to which she cooperated in several editorial and didactic projects with particular reference to the region of Massa Carrara. In the last two years she started writing for the art magazine Exibart.