"The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future."
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 1995 (trans. Eric Prenowitz, 1996)
At a time when many children across the world are on the move, and seeking safety in the midst of conflict, we offer this creative project.
Teresa Murjas & James Rattee, Department of Film, Theatre & Television, University of Reading, July 2016.
How do archives begin? Who creates them? What do their creators experience? Our curiosity about these questions gave rise to this project.
War Child is a story about the Evacuee Archive: how it comes into being, the man who created it and what he has experienced. War Child intends to explore and document the life of this archive, to lyrically evoke its qualities and – virtually – extend its scope.
The Evacuee Archive is primarily – though not exclusively - paper-based. It is comprised of varied types of written, and some recorded, materials and thus embraces many voices. It also contains a small number of artifacts. It is the largest resource of its kind outside London’s Imperial War Museum and continues to grow. Its location at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading lends it form. Archivists and museum professionals catalogue and maintain it. Researchers of various ages, from many walks of life, consult it. Yet what role does its originator, Professor Martin Parsons, play in its evolution? And how does its evolution affect his life?
At a time when material destined for the archive continues to make its steady transition from his home to the museum, this creative project seeks – primarily through dialogue - to engage with Martin’s complex experience as the archive’s originator. In the accompanying sound clips, his younger daughter Hannah evokes this experience.
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Evacuee Archive is held at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading. It contains a range of research materials gathered and produced by Martin Parsons throughout his ongoing career as a historian of Second World War child evacuation, and as a teacher. Martin worked for many years as a lecturer at the University, within the Institute of Education, and has now retired.
We met Martin at MERL in 2013 and - our curiosity about his unique role having been aroused - discussed the possibility of developing a creative project. This led to a series of lengthy conversations with him, over several months, which we recorded. We also spoke with members of his family – daughters Kimiko and Hannah, and Steve, Martin’s family friend and an academic colleague from the US. We discussed with them how the archive continues to come into being and to shape their lives.
As the project evolved, and we became surer of the appropriate media for presenting War Child, we decided to give greater focus to our discussions. In order to try and more fully understand Martin’s relationship to the archive, we asked him which archival items he would rescue from a fire. The temperature having been raised by this playful conceit, a series of intense, reflective dialogues were sparked that investigated themes of choice, priority, attachment and legacy. Martin’s process of selecting specific items, expressed through much of the site’s interview material, encapsulates for us both the archive’s fluid boundaries and its emotional scope. His friend Steve touches on these central themes in the accompanying sound clips.
USING THIS SITE
We like to describe War Child as a mixed-media book. It has been organised into chapters. You can follow this structure in a ‘linear’ way or dip into discrete chapters, as you wish, using the index available at the top of the screen in order to navigate and orient yourself. The site contains a significant amount of textual, audio and visual material, all of which has been ‘woven’ together in a complementary way in order to create this story. Different types of material are foregrounded and combined at different points, and may have the effect of shifting in and out of focus. Importantly for us, this material is intended as a resource for researchers as well as a creative project – a sort of ‘gateway’, perhaps, to the formal archive based at MERL, and to its many contributors.
Importantly, this web-based medium has offered us the flexibility to incorporate and share newly created archival resources, such as certain fragments of the recorded conversations, which constitute a form of oral testimony. It has also enabled us to disseminate glimpses of the material held at MERL, and in Martin’s home, having sought formal permission.
The written text in War Child describes the project’s evolution and outlines the contexts for our meetings with Martin. It is intended to act as a narrative frame for the featured sound clips, which have been selected from many hours of dialogue. Significantly, our ability to speak about and selectively extend the archive has been strengthened through our relationship with its originator, and the editing process has brought with it the need for further conversation and collaboration.
The sound clips included here convey for us the energy of that relationship. One of them features Martin reading from a letter, which was written in later life by an evacuee who called herself ‘Dolly’, and is addressed to her former host family. It has been published in his book, I’ll Take That One (1998).
As implied in the previous section, our ongoing conversations with Martin were underpinned by our own growing attachment to – and profound curiosity about – specific archival material and objects. We came to think of the archive more broadly, and from Martin’s perspective. In this sense its boundaries necessarily encompass material owned by him that is not yet held – and indeed may never be held – at MERL. Shown through video and photography, a select number of such items appear as key ‘storytellers’ in War Child, helping to intimately give shape to, or animate, a theme or idea. This visual material and the edited audio excerpts from our conversations with Martin, his daughters Kimiko and Hannah, and his friend Steve, are layered in ways that specifically interest us, as makers of the site. You can view and listen to these at your leisure and in complete privacy, should you so choose.