Building Memory Through Archives: Chair of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee Visits Gwangju

Written by Anastasia Traynin
Photographs courtesy of Roslyn Russell

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put forth in Paris on December 10, 1948, following the disastrous Second World War that saw one of the worst genocides in modern history. Despite the presence of this historical document, the second half of the 20th century continued a streak of human rights violations around the world, not least of which was the massacre that happened during Gwangju’s May 18th Democratic Uprising. In response to a desperate need for reconciliation and learning from history, human rights archives have become a key focus for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in this century.

Korea has a long, rich archival history, with a total of thirteen entries listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. In 2017 alone, the register designated three records: the Royal Seal Investiture Book Collection of the Joseon Dynasty, the 17th-19th century Joseon Tongsinsa of peacebuilding and cultural exchange between Korea and Japan, and the National Debt Redemption Movement that started at the turn of the 20th century and continued through the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Gwangju’s May 18th Archives was listed in 2011, under the full title Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising Against Military Regime in Gwangju. Following the 2017 World Human Rights Cities Forum, on September 21 and 22, the Asia Culture Center (ACC) hosted the UNESCO-organized International Seminar on Human Rights Archives: Agents of Accountability and Justice.

Besides Korea, the seminar discussed several archival projects around the world, including sobering stories by Nisay Hang, director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, and Jorge Rolón Luna, director general of the Office of Truth and Justice of the Ombudsman’s Office in Paraguay. Speaking on the international scope of human rights archives, Roslyn Russell, chair of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee, delivered a presentation that highlighted the original human rights blueprint, the Magna Carta, through to the UN Charter, Mexico’s writ of amparo, and the recent Eleanor Roosevelt Papers project.

The morning following the seminar, the Gwangju News sat down with Russell in a downtown Gwangju coffee shop. We covered many topics, always staying focused on the pressing issue of human rights archives as a preservation of the most tragic parts of human history that teach us to never allow these atrocities to reoccur.

The seminar was Russell’s sixth visit to Korea, with the first being the 2005 inauguration of the Jikji Memory of the World award for preservation, created by Cheongju City and named after the Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings, the world’s oldest remaining book printed with movable metal type, which remains in the French National Library. The National Archives of Australia won that prize in 2011.

“Coming to Korea is becoming quite a familiar experience,” Russell said.

As a historian and long-time observer of the worldwide efforts to record human history, Russell had many favorable things to say regarding Korea’s own archival journey.

“I think that the resources put into Korea are unbelievable. It really is an eye-opener, especially to see the resources for commemorating 5.18 with the Archives of the May 1980 Uprising. I’ve always been impressed by the fervor around that commemoration for Gwangju but also other aspects of Korea. You see really good exhibitions everywhere. High-level interpretation, mixed media, story, excellent throughout. I’ve been to Daejeon and Seoul, and see what they’ve done there. And the new Asia Culture Center.”

Russell mentioned her visits to older Korean UNESCO heritage sites, including the famous Haeinsa Temple Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks and records from the Joseon Dynasty documents, crediting Korea’s heritage for its balanced mix of ancient and contemporary documents.

She also gave insight into the current picture for the Australian national archival project. For many people, any mention of human rights in Australia would certainly bring up the issue of Aboriginal history. This writer happened to have read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, a well-known mixed fiction and non-fiction book from 1987 that traces the Australian Indigenous people’s creation of their stories through song. Though Russell could not name an archive in the country that is solely focused on human rights, she said that, among a variety of other stories, the Indigenous aspect is one of the strongest parts.

“If we don’t have a record, we don’t have memory.”

“[The Songlines] is now the title of an exhibition at the National Museum. The dreaming stories, the mythological concept. In my view, the Indigenous stories are the best offering that we have. The National Archives had an exhibition some years ago, Between Two Worlds, about the forced removal of Aboriginal children over generations. Native history, workers’ rights, women’s rights. Those are big drivers of human rights dedication in Australia, and then we have the issue at the moment of how we treat the refugees. Then we have exhibitions around what happened to the people who came as migrants and some of the things that they experienced when they came to Australia. So it’s a lot of different dimensions that we can call human rights or social justice that are explored in our exhibitions.”

While Australia’s archives at the government level have a lot of backing, the picture changes when going down the order.

“When it comes down to universities and other kinds of non-governmental bodies, the story is a bit tragic, actually. We are concerned about the fate of our archives. One that was threatened with closure some years ago was the Noel Butlin Archive of Business and Labor at the Australia National University. Fortunately, one of their major collections was listed on our Australian Memory of the World Register, and this helped to save the Archive.”

As a native of Russia and a citizen of the United States, where war history is prominent, this writer related to the fact that Australia’s historical resources are also heavily focused on commemorating wartime, in this case, April 25’s Anzac Day that remembers World War I’s joint Gallipoli campaign with New Zealand and other British forces. Russell explained the enormous level of funding afforded to war commemoration, which poses somewhat of a challenge to maintaining resources for preserving human rights history.

Another challenge is the presence of oral rather than written history that is passed down through the generations, something particularly prominent in Aboriginal culture.
Finally, the discussion turned to the significance of the UNESCO seminar and the lessons of memory and preservation.

“[Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at UNESCO] Frank La Rue’s video was very good and, he made very good points about the truth. It was quite inspirational. And that set the tone for the day, I think. Frank’s speech really gave the message that we need to keep a record, and when we do need to look at them, we can find the answers, and we can start building those bridges. I think people are building good networks and beginning to understand the problems that other people are having. There’s got to be some mechanism in place to give these documents a home. Make sure we don’t lose the history. We have to think in these really catastrophic terms. It’s what it is. With other countries, like Australia, like Korea, we are aware of the problems that have happened. The more information that is out there, the more we can help to avert some of these problems that arise.”

When it comes to the implementation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the principles within, Russell had some important advice.

“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We do have a standard that people should be held to. There’s a rule of moral law, an internationally agreed norm. So you can say ‘what you are doing is violating human rights.’ Whether the government listens is another thing but at least it is there. At the end of the day, it can be appealed to. When people are killed or tortured or starved or whatever, at least there should be some kind of justice for their families. At least we do have something.”

Archives were around long before the modern record-keeping approach, and they remain crucial to preserving human history. Russell’s parting words: “If we don’t have a record, we don’t have memory. Building memory will help understand and not make mistakes that we made in the past. I think that’s what UNESCO stands for.”


The Author
Anastasia (Ana) Traynin is the co-managing editor of Gwangju News. She has been a contributor to the magazine since fall 2013 and has been living in Gwangju since spring of that year. After teaching for three years at Hanbitt High School, she became a GIC coordinator in May 2016. She has passions for Korean social movements, alternative education, live music, languages, and writing.

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