Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Guest blog post: when the trash of popular music culture becomes archival treasures --- overview of the book chapter "Saving Rubbish"

In this post, guest blogger Lauren Istvandity provides an overview of a book chapter written by Sarah Baker and Alison Huber that emerged from the ARC funded project “Popular Music and Cultural Memory” and which was recently published in the edited collection “Sites of Popular Music Heritage: Memories, Histories, Places”.


The mass-produced nature of popular music and its accompanying technologies means that personally owned ephemera relating to pop culture are often looked upon as having little value. As such, collections of this apparent ‘junk’ is left in damaging conditions or thrown out, much to the chagrin of DIY archivists, whose collections are often built around saving and sorting through ‘rubbish’.

In speaking with archive founders and volunteer amateur archivists around the world, Baker and Huber found that with the idea of ‘junk’ or ‘rubbish’ as the basis for archival material comes a variety of diverse meanings and practices. In saving or receiving collections otherwise bound for the tip, archives must produce their own value system, based on vernacular knowledge of contributing volunteers. Indeed, a fear for the loss of artefacts that contribute to our understanding of popular culture spurred the creation of a number of archives, including the Victorian Jazz Archive (VJA, Australia, and recently re-badged as the Australian Jazz Museum) and The ARChive of Contemporary Music (USA). 

A deep-seated concern for the preservation of music heritage leads to a range of collection and appraisal policies amongst DIY archives. Some sites, such as the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame (ACMHF) in Tamworth, keep just about every item that comes through their doors. In doing this, the volunteers hope that they will not neglect material of potential value, despite increasing limitations on storage space. In contrast, archives like the VJA, sort through excessive amounts of archival material only to keep those items that are in the best possible condition.

Both examples highlight the weight of appraisal decisions upon volunteers: while each team typically equates to a broad level of vernacular knowledge, their lack of training as formal archivists or historians leaves them learning from mistakes in collecting practices on-the-job. This, combined with a “fear of loss” of artefacts, results in a burgeoning amount of materials that may never be sorted. In those archives where items do not make it past sorting policies, the artefacts are often given a new lease on life through fundraising retail sales or giveaways. 

Baker and Huber devise the idea of “in-between” as a descriptor for the source location of much of the material that makes up archival donations. Curators and volunteers frequently recounted stories of material donations that had come from places such as ‘in the shed’, ‘under the bed’, or ‘in a cupboard’. The storage of collections in these places often signaled the status of the items as somewhere between being personal belongings and material ready for the tip. Baker and Huber’s use of the terms “in-between” and “under the bed” are not only literal but also metaphoric, referring to the private, tucked away places from which archival materials are gathered.

In taking on the responsibility of sorting the trash from the treasure, archivists of popular music also take on a more figurative role in society more broadly. Through their collections, DIYers are making history “accessible” to the public via items that while perhaps not of high monetary value, can retain significant personal and cultural value for others. 

Baker, S. and Huber, A. (2015). Saving ‘rubbish’: Preserving music’s material culture in amateur archives and museums. In S. Cohen, R. Knifton, M. Leonard, and L. Roberts (Eds.),  Sites of Popular Music Heritage: Memories, Histories, Places (pp. 112-124). New York, NY: Routledge.