Anthropology professor discusses archives and their viewers


Jorge Corona

Associate Professor of Anthropology Maria Wade lectures on the preservation of historical archives at the Student Activity Center on Monday afternoon.

Amanda O’Donnell

Maria Wade, associate professor of anthropology, gave a talk Monday afternoon titled, “Ojo — The Eye on the Archive,” that discussed the ways viewers take in an archive and the problems that come with archival construction.

Wade discussed the issue of how to present information in an archive so the viewer has the best opportunity to take meaning from it. 

Wade is an archaeologist and ethnohistorian whose work concentrates on the colonial and post-colonial periods in Northern Mexico, Texas and the Southwest. She is currently working with UT graduate and undergraduate students on an archaeological research project in Portugal to excavate a hilltop settlement.  

“The job of figuring out what the connections are within a particular collection is a difficult task for the archivist,” Wade said. “Then for the viewer, the ojo, to see the connections and from that decipher what they mean — it’s a complicated, filtered process.”

Wade also discussed the inevitability of error that accompanies necessary omission when constructing an archive.

“Some things are kept and some things, most things, are discarded,” Wade said. “What is kept often depends on who is in charge of making that decision.”

Richard Oram, associate director of the Harry Ransom Center, said a dedication to lessening the opportunity for error is a necessary characteristic in any archivist. He discussed archival finding aids which are guides designed by archivists to summarize their collections.

“Archival finding aids are intended to be pathways into the archive and are by definition flawed, since they are only representations,” Oram said. “However, all good archivists are willing to work with researchers to create better instruments and to correct inaccuracies.”

Wade ended her talk with a quote from Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin.

“Anytime I’m in trouble, I go look at Bakhtin to help me think,” Wade said. “He said, ‘In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding — in time, in space, in culture.’”

Anthropology professor John Kappelman said what Bakhtin celebrates is that all speech is actually derivative of prior speech.

“I respect the impulse to unjumble and place information — because it’s proper of archaeologists — but also to some degree it has to be understood that [jumbling is] inevitable,”Kappelman said.