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Rene Kinzett

The power of words

July 26th, 2010 by René Kinzett

Have had a very busy few weeks of work, preventing me from blogging as much as I would like, or indeed should given the generous hosting of my words by the lovely people at Think Politics.

In writing my grovelling apology of an opening sentence, I was struck by the importance of words and the power of the written record and had something of a Eureka moment. So this blog entry will be as much about the stuff I’ve been involved in over the past couple of weeks, as it is a political commentary on the power of archives.

My day job outside of politics is as Head of Public Affairs for the new Archives & Records Association, the body which seeks to give voice to the professional archivist, the users of archives and the providers of many of the archival services across the UK and Republic of Ireland. One of the best aspects of this job is the places and people I get to see and meet. Last week I visited the Treasures Exhibition at Lambeth Palace. Set out in the Great Hall of the Palace were several glass display cases, temporarily hosting some of the most remarkable books, letters, diaries, photographs and other artifacts and archival items kept by Lambeth Palace Library. A book by a Catholic priest pleading the case against the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII writes in his own hand that the arguments are false. You can almost see his rage in the neatly penned lettering in the right-hand margin. Another book imploring King James I to show religious tolerance has a note in the margin from the monarch stating that such leniency had been shown in Elizabeth’s time and that people who advocated the policy were now “prickles in our side”.

The celebration of our nation’s history through its archives had a second boost this month with a Parliamentary Reception in the Cholmondeley Room and River Terrace of the House of Lords. The Reception, hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Archives, was presided over by historian and political scientist Lord (Paul) Bew and was addressed by (among others) academic and broadcaster Lisa Jardine and Arts Minister Ed Vaizey. The Reception launched the first ever UNESCO Memory of the World UK National Register, listing the top 10 items and collections of archival materials of major significance to UK culture and society. Top of the list was the first Charter of King William I to the City of London, granted in 1027. The Register also includes the film “The Life Story of Lloyd George” and the Peterloo Relief Fund Account Book, which includes desciptions of the “massacre” at the anti-Corn Law Rally of 1819.

The week just gone ended for me with a visit to Belfast, my first ever visit to Northern Ireland and, I hope, far from my last. I really enjoyed my two nights in the city, including a trip to the recently refurbished Ulster Museum, which beat the Bodleian to the coveted Art Fund Prize. Belfast is itself a city rich in history – and it is written in its buildings (the City Hall is magnificent, a real testimony to the pride of being declared a city by Queen Victoria), in its archival collections and in on its walls. As part of my visit I was thrilled to be offered a personal tour of the murals of Belfast by Lord Bew, someone more used to taking journalists and camera crews around the area. The murals are amazing to see first-hand, the colours, the imagery, the slogans and the sheer skill of the artwork itself are all very powerful and strangely affecting. They seem at once both anachronistic and threatening. The declaration on one mural facing people arriving in one neighbourhood that one is “Entering a Loyalist Area” is literally arresting – it stops you in your tracks and you almost feel yourself reaching for some form of ID to declare your support, or at least diplomatic neutrality. The murals in Nationalist West Belfast (where, Paul Bew told me, 4 out of 5 of the people we saw walking by probably voted for Gerry Adams) were more complexly political, with a mix of trade unionist messages, international politics (Gaza featured heavily) and nakedly party political (flattering portraiture of Adams). As we made the very short drive back to “metropolitan Belfast”, it made me wonder how such a small collection of neighbourhoods in a tiny part of a small nation could have held such sway over national UK politics, ruined lives and affected Anglo-US relations for such a long period of time. Which is why the words and images on the sides of those small houses in Belfast need to be recorded and preserved for future generations to explore, study and, one hopes, learn from. The Ulster Museum had an excellent part of its exhibition on Belfast dedicated to The Troubles and the murals form an important archival heritage for the people of Northern Ireland.

This week will take me to Edinburgh and my second visit to the National Archives of Scotland, with the rest of the week working at home in Swansea, including a visit to the City by the Archbishop of Canterbury, a native of Swansea who is coming to recieve the Freedom of the City. I hope to squeeze in something about my visit to his Palace in South London when I speak in support of conferring this honour upon him!

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