Naming the archives

A notice board outside the building earmarked to accommodate Guyana’s National Archives in Homestretch Avenue reads: “Walter Rodney Archives.” This is yet another mystery in the strange story of how this structure came to be built, and the details of the arrangements by which the former National Archives building in Main Street came to be exchanged for the present site and a new repository. While there was no doubt the old Main Street building was totally unsuitable for the housing of public documents, no information has been made available about the new accommodation in Homestretch, and whether in fact it meets international standards for the preservation of documents.

Be all of that as it may, the renaming of the archive without any reference that anyone knows about, to the historians at the university or those familiar with such matters, is an example of over hasty decision-making. The first intimation anyone had that the archives were to be renamed, came in an almost incidental way from Minister of Culture, Dr Frank Anthony, last year when he went to look at the progress on the new building. In addition to mentioning that it would be named after Dr Walter Rodney, he said it would be decorated with historical artefacts – he did not enlighten the populace as to what these would be save for one item. This was a painting of the late historian done by an artist affiliated to the WPA, which he said would be hung in a prominent place.

There is no problem with the painting, or with it being prominently displayed. The problem comes with the naming of the archives. As Professor Menezes has proposed, there could be no difficulty naming the building itself after Dr Walter Rodney, and it might be added that this would undoubtedly meet with universal acceptance. After all, we have Castellani House which houses the National Gallery of Art. However, the nation’s art collection is not called the Castellani Gallery; it is only in the name of the building that the late nineteenth-century architect is remembered, in part because he was the one responsible for its original design.

A nation’s archives, no less than a nation’s art collection cannot belong to one man or woman; it should carry the description ‘National,’ or some similar appellation indicating it is part of the nation’s patrimony.

There are, of course, institutions such as the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, which are called after a single personality. However, in the case of the centre, it is a privately run institute, not a publicly maintained institution, and the records it holds pertain to limited periods of Guyana’s modern history and do indeed have a particular association with Dr Cheddi Jagan himself. There are many collections of this order – some even publicly funded − around the world, the best known, perhaps, being the presidential libraries in the United States. However, the public collection of that country’s general records is called the National Archives and Records Administration.

Dr Walter Rodney certainly spent a good deal of time in the archives in the mid-seventies, during the period when they were accommodated in a dilapidated building near the Stabroek Market. It was here his research for his last book, which was published posthumously, was undertaken – the much acclaimed A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905. The original intention was for there to be more than one volume, but he was killed before the first volume even appeared, although the typescript had already been sent to the publisher before he died.

Guyana’s records – or those which have survived locally – begin in the seventeenth century and continue into modern times. They are not associated with any one person or any limited period, and there can be little doubt that Dr Rodney would not have endorsed the decision to name them after him. This is not just because he was an inherently modest person, who did not believe in self promotion, but also because as a historian of international stature who had worked in archives in a number of countries, he would have felt it very inappropriate. Of all people, he would not have wanted his name usurping that of the nation.

Perhaps, therefore, the Minister of Culture could take a second look at the issue, and invite the opinion of a range of people who are acquainted with matters of this kind. The obvious solution which presents itself, as stated above, would be to retain the name ‘National Archives’ but call the building in which these are housed after Dr Rodney.

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