Within the universe of archives

My position to dwell on the matter of an archive is not the one of an archivist. To me archives are not even an everyday experience. Even though the starting point of my project on archives is personal, I have not become immune, so to speak, against the smell of an archive.

By Karl Emil Sødergren jr

From my personal experience with archives I am convinced, there is more extraordinary about an archive than the smell of paper and dust. Since the first time I lost myself into the universe of the drawing archive left by architect Gustav Helland in Stavanger (Sødergren 2014), I have been intrigued by the power of an archive and its many cultural, social, historic, legal and spatial implications. The amount of information accumulated in the archive creates a kind of gravity which attracts both people with questions as well as similar content to which is already there.

One of the differences between a library and an archive is that the content of an archive not necessarily has been published, while being published usually is a threshold for being included in the library in the first place. Archives have the potential of revealing information which is not known explicitly to the world. To better understand the world today, it could help to read all the books by Michel Foucault. They are available in most libraries and in most languages around the globe. If you want to go beyond that point, you can visit his archive and study the original manuscripts.

As an architect student, I am especially interested in drawing archives. The main focus of my investigations in this article, will be the spatial and cultural context of an archive. I have seen archives described both as “houses of memory” (Thomas Cook 1997) and “machines for production”(Hans Ulrich Obrist 2013). I will look for ways of describing the power in an archive by using terms provided by thinkers and writers like Michel Foucault, Victor Turner and Émile Durkheim. Along the way, I will include observations and first hand experiences with institutional archives such as the City Archive of Stavanger, The Wittgenstein Archive in Bergen and the city architect archives of Braila, Romania, during communist time. The very landscape towards which I am heading, is the thousands of drawings left by architect Gustav Helland.


Archival science and its background

There are, or course, extremely many archives dedicated to the preservation of all kinds of human and inhuman activity in the world. What we decide to make archives about, is in many regards a political, social and cultural question. Huge secret archives like the STASI in former DDR are very different from Svalbard Global Seed Vault, but it could be argued that they are both archives. There are official archives which are regulated by juristical rules, and there are private archives which are not. The Wittgenstein Archive in Bergen is an example of an institution which is based on one particular philosopher’s work. The archive is dedicated to digitalization and research of the Wittgenstein Nachlass. There are no physical documents from the Austrian philosopher stored in the spaces of the institution. What makes it unique, is that all the works left by Wittgenstein is electronically assembled here, and it is indeed the only Wittgenstein archive in the world. In the case of the Wittgenstein Archives, it is as much the research community and the activities connected with the publishing of this research that creates the archive, as the collection of material. Within the definition of the archival science, The Wittgenstein Archive would not be reckoned as an archive, because the collection of information is not a direct result of the process which created them.

Archival science is a well-established academic discipline with a long history. The theoretical foundation which archivists build their institutions on, was first formulated by the Dutch archivists Samuel Muller, Johan Feith and Robert Fruin (Cook 2007). Their book Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives was published in 1889, but archives had existed many hundred years before that. The International Council on Archives (ICA) describes archives and the organization’s goal like this:

The International Council on Archives (ICA) is dedicated to the effective management of records and the preservation, care and use of the world’s archival heritage through its representation of records and archive professionals across the globe. Archives are an incredible resource. They are the documentary by-product of human activity and as such are an irreplaceable witness to past events, underpinning democracy, the identity of individuals and communities, and human rights. But they are also fragile and vulnerable. The ICA strives to protect and ensure access to archives through advocacy, setting standards, professional development, and enabling dialogue between archivists, policy makers, creators and users of archives.

The ICA will this September arrange their quadrennial international congress in Seoul attended by archivists from many of the 1400 member institutions all over the world. June 9, the International Archive Day, is a date to remember.



Michel Foucault and heterotopia

First, I will see how Michel Foucault’s article “Of other spaces” can cast a light into the spaces of the archives. Michel Foucault used the term “heterotopia” in a lecture for Parisian architects in 1967. This talk has later become known as “Of other spaces” and the word spread quickly to a wide variety of academic circles. Ever since Foucault spoke to the group of architects in Paris, the term has been an inspiration and subject of dispute among urbanists and architecture theorists (Dehaene, De Cauter 2008). In the book “Heterotopia and the city” the concept is discussed in the context of semi-public spaces such as gated communities and shopping malls. Social anthropologist Frode Jacobsen has used the term looking at the cultural and spatial position of an old people’s home in Norway (Jacobsen 2015). One of the master courses at Bergen School of Architecture this spring bears the name of “Heterotopia”.

The original text by Foucault, only a ten pages read, was not printed before 1984 and translated to English in 1986. Even before this point, the concept spread among urbanists and scholars as a rumour. (Dehaene, De Cauter 2008) How can a short lecture give birth to such an explosive and long living concept? What could a nursery home and an archive share in our common consciousness?

It is possible to study the translation of Foucault’s lecture several runs in a short time, and yet by each new reading it is hard to exhaust the layers of meaning completely. In his lecture, Foucault claims that in modernity space has replaced time as the most influential orientation towards the world.


The present epoch would perhaps rather be the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a great life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.


As for the time, being “desacralized” already in the 19th century, according to Foucault, space is characterized by a set of oppositions between private and public, family space and social space, cultural space and useful space, leisure and work space. By sacrality Foucault is referring to Émile Durkheim’s distinction between the profane and to what we give special attention in a negative or positive sense (Durkheim 1915). Space is loaded with more cultural codes and meanings than time. Of course, this must be like music for the architects who followed his lecture. Among all these spaces we move and live our lives, there are some spaces that are unlike all the others, continues Foucault. They are the utopias, which are unreal spaces in dreams and imagination, and they are heterotopias, which are real spaces with a physical placement. One intriguing feature about heterotopias, is that they have the ability to be both physical and mental, to be both here and there. When one sees oneself in a mirror, the reflection occurs in a virtual non-existing space, whereas the body is still in the physical space. This act, claims Foucault, is both a utopia and a heterotopia. In some cases heterotopias function as bridges between different times or are somehow connected with a number of other spaces simultaneously.

Heterotopia meaning literary “other space” highlights the extraordinary and abnormal about them. Through the article Foucault names several of these spaces: The graveyard, prisons, the military service, museums, brothels, some colonies in South America. Another attribute of Foucault’s heterotopias is that they in many cases have a subtle form of being open and closed at the same time and that one often must pass through a set of rites to fully enter them. Some heterotopias are inseparably related to these rites or “purification” itself, like the hamam bathhouse and the sauna. Even a phone call can be understood as heterotopic. Foucault’s concept of heterotopia was conceived before the internet. One might wonder if not also cyperspace, is a heterotopia.


The archive as heterotopia

All though Foucault does not explicitly claim that an archive would be a heterotopia, there are many hints that it might be. About libraries and museums he writes:

By contrast, the idea of accumulating everything, the idea of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time, and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in a place that will not move – well, all this belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are characteristic of Western culture in the nineteenth century.


To go back to the starting point of this article, archives that are dedicated to the storage of drawings that are relevant to the development of specific cities, the concept of heterotopia can pinpoint some of their potential power. Foucault writes:

The heterotopia has the power to juxtapose in a single real place several spaces, several emplacements that are in themselves incompatible.


When confronted with a large collection of drawings, which due to their significance in the city and the nature of how the material is categorized and kept in order, will take you into one building after the other, gives an experience of being “neither here nor there”. As long as you are inside the archival universe, you are able to walk through several buildings simultaneously and explore them real time. If I am not mistaken, this is exactly one of the major forces in the archive. The fact that in a single place, there are present the original instructions, so to speak, of how to construct and shape, a large number of buildings which at a certain time was erected and still is present in the city, is truly fascinating. In Foucault’s spirit, one could say that the archive becomes not only the mirror of the city, but the ultrasound projection of it. In the case of an institutional archive, like the City Archive of Stavanger, there would be a premise to assemble all of the drawings as well as documents accumulated through the contact between the municipality and those who build the city. This would before the start of the digital age, mean copies or blue prints of handmade drawings. The liability of the institution is resting on its capability to record everything and to secure it. In Stavanger, for example, all drawings of the buildings in the city before 1929 are missing because of a devastating fire. The drawing archive left by Gustav Helland has its prime time between the years 1914 and 1940, in the sense that this was his most productive phase. In this period, there were nearly no major building operation in Stavanger without Gustav Helland playing a role in it.


It is also interesting to relate these ideas to the drawing archive of the former design studio of the city of Braila, Romania, which I have had the joy of entering more than once. The position of the Produmus design studio in Braila during communist time was not unlike that of architect Helland in Stavanger between the wars. After the city was given its own administration in 1975, more or less all buildings in the making of the new city were planned and designed locally, under increasing regulations and control by the Communist Party. The architect’s internal archive became also the city’s record of buildings, hence containing the original drawings of nearly every official building in the city. This, of course, is the case in all cities in the former Eastern Block. After the revolution in 89 the statuses of these archives is a disordered picture often with unsettled ownership and conduction. They are heterotopias with enormous unfulfilled potentials.


This brings me to another of the potential powers the archive has; the ability to bring the attending user to different stages of time. Foucault calls this heterochronism:


Heterotopias are most often linked to slices of time – which is to say that they open onto what might be called, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronisms.21 The heterotopia begins to function fully when people find themselves in a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.


In the three examples mentioned above, this feature of heterotopia works out in different ways. A municipal archive of drawings, and documents, like Byarkivet in Stavanger, will have an accumulation of material up until the present day, while the examples of the professional archive of one architect or a design studio from the communist era in Romania, will have focus on a limited timeframe. While Byarkivet in Stavanger in principle can bring to life any given moment of the city’s history available, architect Helland’s archive is operating mainly between 1914 and 1960. There has been ordered alterations on a number of buildings which in many cases have triggered an update of entries and a reorganization of the material in the archive. The archive of the Produmus design studio has the force to awake not only past times through sketches and drawings, but the ghost of the whole epoch of Communism, or at least the form it took through architecture.


Michel Foucault’s archives


To read all the books by Michel Foucault could be described as a rather ambitious undertaking, whether it is in a year or a week. One day I hope to have gained insight in his work to the degree where I can visit one of the archives dedicated to his work, with a reason. Interesting enough, there is a placement on the internet with the path: michel-foucault-archives.org. If you enter it, you will find a very short message in left upper corner, saying: en travaux, under construction. If this is a sophisticated comment, a joke or an actual start of mediating the works of Foucault, is hard to say. There are a few physical archives containing written documents and audiovisual material from his production, on different locations around the world. To elaborate on his relation to the matter of archives, I will refer to a study by Knut Ove Eliassen, professor in literature at NTNU. His study “The archives of Michel Foucault” (Eliassen 2010) investigates precisely this. Eliassen states that the “concept of archiving and archives the last decade has become increasingly important in the social studies as well as in the humanities”. He calls it a buzz word “one of those terms that function as the markers of new trends, indicating an adherence to a particular school or field of interest, apparently heralding new and important insights.” Eliassen stresses that Michel Foucault indeed is a man of archives. In fact, Foucault spent an enormous amount of time in archives and much of his analysis about the history of prisons, the power of the state or the suppressions made in the name of medicine was based on his experimental use of archives. The title of a review on Foucault’s book The Archeology of knowledge written by Gilles Deleuze was not inappropriate: “A new kind of archivist”. Eliassen’s reading of Foucault detects three main uses of archives in Foucault’s works, the first being connected with his analytical and systematic concept in historical epistemology elaborated in the Archeology of Knowledge. Secondly, Michel Foucault archives are historically embedded institutions functioning as administrative tools that register, store, and provide data about populations and nations. The third area where Foucault enters the universe of archives, are a group of socially and historically constructed spaces called heterotopias. Knut Ove Eliassen quotes Foucault several places in his archival research. Here is a striking remark:


By archive, I primarily understand the mass of the things said in a culture, conserved, valorized, reused, repeated and transformed. In short, this verbal mass that has been fabricated by people, invested in their techniques and their institutions, and that is woven into their existence and their history. I do not consider this mass of things said, from the side of language, but from the side of the operations that give birth to it.


Liminality and sacrality in archives

Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, one does not access a heterotopian emplacement as if it were a pub.28 Either one is constrained, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else one has to submit to rites and to purifications.


The passage above is also from Michel Foucault’s “Of other spaces”. It works as an appropriate transition to look at archives from the angle of both Victor Turner’s concept of liminality as well as Émile Durkheim’s sacralisation. In a way, Foucault is referring to Durkheim already in the start of the lecture where he talks about the desacralization of time and the prevailing sacralisation of space. In his work, Émile Durkheim introduces a distinction between sacred spaces we give special attention to and the profane, the normal (Durkheim 1915). Churches, cemeteries, brothels, prisons, archives and libraries, Foucault’s heterotopic spaces, are without any doubt sacred. They are other spaces. Durkheim also states that culturally we can speak about a positive and a negative sacralisation and that every culture seems to create rites in connection with these spaces.

Here it is relevant to describe the nature of my visit to the City Archive in Stavanger. Among many other entries, the archive keeps record of material given from the outside. This could typically be larger private collections of photos, books and also significant drawings. Set apart from the professional archive of architect Gustav Helland located in his office, he kept track of sketches, drawings and paintings from his study years in Germany, and also a few competition entries, in his home. At one point after his death his widow gave this to the City Archive of Stavanger. If for research reasons you want to look at this material, you can ask for access to the file. Already here, there is an element of rite emerging. When I arrived at the archive it seemed obvious to me, that there is a special attention towards people who ask for this kind of service. The employees who work at the reception, immediately knew why I was there. I was guided into the reading room where the file containing the drawings by architect Helland was laid out on a large table. On top of the file was a pair of thin, white cotton gloves. The requirement of using gloves is of course due to the preservation of the paper, but can also be seen as part of the rite of entering the archive. The reading room is easy to surveillance through the window of the office of the leader of the archive, situated above the reading room. Along the walls in the reading room, the City Archive of Stavanger keeps books which are relevant for the history of the city, but the content of the archive itself is elsewhere. The storage rooms of the archive is not accessible for anyone else than the people working there. In this particular institutional archive, the sacralisation is evident in the physical organisation of the building as well as the actions performed while entering it.

In the example of the Produmus drawing archive in Braila, Romania, the formalities of the archive as an institution has disappeared after the revolution in 89. How the rites of the archive was performed during communist time is an interesting thought, but this is not the point which I want to focus on now. During a one-month field work in Braila, on a cocktail of architectural research, social anthropological approaches and journalistic methods, I was one of two students who managed to enter the archive in the present state. First of all, it would not have been possible without a personal contact. We were lucky to be acquainted with one of the former architects at the design studio during our stay in the city. She works today as “one out of ten” architects with commissions in a city with nearly 200.000 inhabitants. The state owned design studio was privatized in the early 90s and survived as an office until 2008. The drawings of nearly the entire official Braila is today owned by the person who bought the building when it was sold. He happens to be an engineer who used to work in the department. When we asked to see the original drawings of buildings which were typical for the development of the city, like the huge cinema built in the 80s, the local fashion house, the shopping centre and so on, there were first made many phone calls. No one seemed to have asked for this in several years. At last, we were allowed to come into the magazines were the drawings were kept. These spaces proved to be in the basement of a typical office building not far away from the city hall. There was no reception, but strangely enough, there were some people who had their office between the archive rooms. They did not seem to work with questions related to the archive at all, but assisted our search for drawings. We were allowed to take out the drawings we wanted, to unroll them and take pictures of them, but not to photograph the storage of the drawings, the archive itself. This could be because they were embarrassed by the state of the it. It might also be due to political or cultural causes. Both the sacralisation of the space and the rites we had to pass to go through to get there, were clearly part of the experience, but in a different way than in at the archive in Stavanger.

Archives’ stages of life

There seems to be an overlap between Foucault’s principles of heterotopias and Victor Turner’s ideas about liminality. According to the theory of the “rites of passages” which people go through to become part of their societies, there will be periods “betwixt and between” (Turner 1967) when they are neither this or that. Especially when looking at the private archives, like the drawing archive left by one architect, or the now privatized archive of the Produmus studio, the concept of liminality becomes interesting when looking at the question of custody. While human beings go through life passing rites of passages on the way, archives also have their own history, a life of their own, a personality, and sometimes go through passages of rites. A rite like this can be when a private archive is included in an institutional one. An important aspect of a lifespan of a historical object, is who owns it, where it comes from and so on. In archives, and museums, this is referred to as an object’s provenance. The travel that archival material makes can in many cases be as interesting as its content. In the case of the Produmus archive in Braila, and numerous other archival material in the former communist countries, their provenance as historic artefacts is closely connected with the regimes which initiated the processes behind them. One can argue that the incredible work of the architects in Braila is in fact an official record of the city and therefore belongs to the state. Surely, the STASI archives is not private property today, even though the victim of the surveillance can access it. Our first reaction when we entered the room was that this should be available for the public. Whether the present owner is aware of this perspective or not, there will be an increasing pressure to hand this archive over to the control of the city. We learned that during the refurbishing of the city hall a few years back, the drawings of this particular building had been removed from the archive in the Promudus building. Even though the building process had finished, the drawings were never returned. When the owner had asked for it, the answer was that it belonged to the city. In the provenance of the archive, it finds itself in a liminal phase, somewhere between public and private. The ambivalence we experienced about it, the many phone calls, uncertainty about having access to it, the fact that we were not allowed to take photos of the storage, but could study single projects, all this support the notion of liminality. Mary Douglas’s ideas about the pollution connected with the liminal phases being “a reaction to protect cherished principles and categories from contradiction” can clearly be relevant in the example from Romania (Douglas 1966). In an attempt to keep the border between private and the public interest, the owner avoids too much attention to it.

The structure of archives

The theories of both Mary Douglas and Victor Turner are partly depending on the work by the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. One of his thesis describes the universal human condition to divide the world in categories. All peoples built the structures of their culture by a pattern that is constantly changing (Lévi-Strauss 1963). One can hardly imagine an archive without categories. This way the archive becomes a world in itself, again a mirror of the city, the population or the sequence of events. The power of the archive is relying very much on the structure of the archive and how the material is categorized and made traceable through an index. The categorization is not an innocent matter. Unlike libraries, one will find various ways of structuring the content of an archive due to its nature and the cultural context. One can easily imagen archives that are divided by years, names, levels of secrecy, addresses, production numbers, models, smells, sizes, weight, species, criminal acts or even races. The logic of the categories is part of the objects’ provenance. While in libraries the principle of categorizing is decided by what the media is about, in archives the same principle is referring to what the object actually is. What the index in the archive of architect Helland is referring to, is the actual drawing of a house, usually not something else describing the house, and if it were, it is still the actual thing.

How we look at the objects in the archives and the way we organize it, are likely to change through history. After the STASI archives entered into a new reality and was opened up to the people, the way the material is categorized may have changed. This could have been seen as an act of taking democratic control over the suppressor. The structure of the archive in Braila was more or less gone because it had not been maintained. If the drawings at some point will be taken under the wings of an archivist, the material might be placed within a post-communist framework which most likely will be different from the structure of the archive before. The logic of the ordering of the drawing archive left by Helland has been re-established by the users several times over the years. In this sense, the categories tie the archive to the present, potentially also to the future, while its entries always are in the past.


Archives and the future

That archives have the power to capture the history, and make us capable of reaching not only past times, but also other spaces, seems to be a plausible reflection at this point. The promise of an universe within the archive, seems even more true than I expected. Maybe is it even possible to turn the archives into “machines of production” that take us into the future. The art scene is an area where archives in recent years have become an important component. There are many examples of that, where Studio Miessen’s collaboration with Hans Ulbrich Obrist Archive is a recent one. In the exhibition “Archive Fever”, the curator Okwai Enzewor, explored the way artist have appropriated, interpreted, reconfigured and interrogated archival structures and archival materials especially in photography (Enzewor 2008). In his essay announcing the exhibition Enzewor writes:

The standard view of the archive oftentimes evokes a dim, musty place full of drawers, filing cabinets, and shelves laden with documents, an inert repository of historical artefacts against the archive as an active, regulatory discursive system.

It is within this discourse my project must find its place. Most of the theoretical background for my studies of archives so far, derives from an age before the digital explosion. In his article “Archives and aspiration”, the social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai address the function of the archive after internet and the extreme capacity of fast and precise information technologies (Appadurai 2003).

(..) there is from the start a Cartesian split, in which the archives lives, not because of its own materiality (its paper, its textures, its dust, its files, its buildings), but because of the spirit which animates these materials – the spirit of “pastness” itself. (..) “Foucault destroyed the innocence of the archive and forced us to ask about the designs through which all traces are produced.”  

He goes on:

Thus, after Foucault, we need a new way to look at the archive as a collective tool. Recognizing that the archive is not just a way to preserve accidental, but precious traces of collective memory, we need also to see that perhaps Foucault had too dark a vision of the panoptical functions of the archive, of its roles as an accessory to policing, surveillance and governmentality. The creation of documents and their aggregation into archives is also a part of everyday life outside the purview of the state. The personal diary, the family photo album, the community museum, the libraries of individuals are all examples of popular archives and, of course, oral archives have been repositories of intentional remembering for most of human history.

After this passage, one might suspect that also Arjun Appadurai have not read all the books by Michel Foucault, and that he mainly refers to his later works where archives work as tools of power. Appadurai claims, however, that the interactive tools provided by modern computer technologies, partly can fill the gap between the vehicle of memory, the archive, and the collective memory. This is of course an interesting perspective to include in the search for spatial opportunities in the universe of a drawing archive. There is not necessarily a contradiction between a digital archive and a physical one. The historical object itself, being a drawing or something else, becomes even more relevant, in an age where its image is only a click away.




Appadurai, Arjun: «Archives and aspiration», 2003.

Cook, Terry: «What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift», 1997.

Douglas, Mary: “Purity and Danger”, 1966.

Durkheim, Émile: “The elementary form of religious life”, 1915.

Eliassen, Knut Ove: “The archives of Michel Foucault”, from “The Archive in Mo-tion, New Conceptions of the Archive in Contemporary Thought and New Media Practices”.

Foucault, Michel: “Of other spaces”, 1984 (1976).

Jacobsen, Frode F.: «Rom, vegger og inskripsjoner i sykehjem: et søkelys på rutiner og makt.» Michael, 2015.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude: “Structural anthropology”, 1963.

Sødergren, Karl Emil: «Stavanger var hans verksted», Stavanger Aftenblad 2014.

Turner, Victor: “Between and betwixt”, 1967.


Further readings:

Derrida, Jacques: Archive Fever, 1995.

Manoff, Marlene: Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines, Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 4 No1, 2004.

Foster, Hall: An archival Impulse 2004.

Foster, Hall: Archives of Modern Art 2009.

Archive in Motion: Research project at the University of Oslo, January 2011- December 2013