Early in The Palace Letters (2020, Scribe), Jenny Hocking recounts an encounter with the director-general of the National Achives of Australia, David Fricker, which took place shortly after a document had been given to Hocking by the archives – a document that, amongst other things, shone a light on possible collusion between the former Governor-General John Kerr and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Anthony Mason in the dismissal of the prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975:
In the end, Fricker told me, the Archives recognised that withdrawing from public access a file that I had already been given access to, and had a copy of, would only have created an event greater furore than the document itself. […]
The exchange was unsettling on several levels: in whose interests would a retrospective withdrawal from access of such a significant historical document have been? Not the Australian public, in whose name the Archives is meant to ‘preserve, manage and make public’ our historic archival records, and certainly not the history of the dismissal. The only interests this could have served were the now-flawed legacies of Sir John Kerr and Sir Anthony Mason. And what role should that have in a decision by the Archives over public access to its most significant records?
The memory of a nation aren’t the memories of its citizens – not really. A person’s memories are fleeting; impressions cast through a thousand lenses, distorted in uncountable and arcane ways. To recall is to conjure from the indistinct past a procession of images that meaningfully resemble, closely enough, a story that plausibly belongs to that past. A nation’s memory can’t operate the same way – the lenses through which it is viewed multiply too greatly, and the story becomes muddied by too many tellers. A nation’s memory is its objects – objects like the letters hidden in the Archives. The story the letters tell is of Kerr’s and Mason’s joint story, a story that included the dismissal of a government. But the stories of these two men, however significant, are not the nation’s memory. The letters are.
That a nation’s memory is its objects means that the objects must be guarded, so the memory is preserved. People protect their memories, too. There are stories to tell acquaintances, and those to tell our lovers – differently curated for different audiences. After all, we are just memory. A nation is, likewise, curated memory, held in certain objects that are and are not part of our national memory.
By outsourcing the guarding of these objects, we outsource the curation of national memory. The nation’s memory belongs to the Archives, because the objects that define it belong to them – at least, partially. The archivists have become the arbiters of memory.
I remember once reading of a town in Russia, which had been the seat of a seditious rebellion. The Tsar, as the most dire punishment he could imagine, ordered the town’s church bells confiscated. The townsfolk mourned the loss of their tradition; of their history; of their collective memories. Their bells were gone, and they had nothing to attach their grief to.
But where I read this, I can’t recall.