Imagined Archives

Imagine a participatory art project aimed at developing archives inspired by creativity and respect …

On May 8-9 2017, as part of a National Summit Setting the Record Straight: For the Rights of the Child, the Imagined Archives project installed a “pop up” exhibition in the Deakin Edge at Melbourne’s Federation Square. A creative extension of the Summit’s focus on recordkeeping inspired by rights, participation, and respect; the Imagined Archive exhibition took shape as a group art project bringing together works from differing perspectives and stages of completion.

CLAN (Care Leavers Australasia Network) were a partner organisation in planning the National Summit, and helped make the voice of Forgotten Australians visible in the Imagined Archive exhibition. An initial mail-out through CLAN’s membership network assisted the project to connect directly with a number of Care Leavers, while others chose to contribute their stories and images via CLAN’s leadership group.

CLAN representatives (L-R) Leonie Sheedy, Joanna Penglase, Jacqueline Wilson, Frank Golding and Vlad Selakovic standing next to CLAN’s Charter of Rights to Childhood Records. (Photograph © Marlene Habib).

The exhibition foregrounded CLAN’s contributions in Postcard Show (small artworks and documentary photographs submitted in response to themes of “rights in records” and “the imagined archive”) and Alternative Facts. The Alternative Facts installation is a working model for a digital artwork that renders counter narratives to institutional records. Care Leavers choose to share contested statements of “fact” that were recorded on their files and “legitimised” as part of the archival record. These words display onscreen, then are erased and overwritten by alternative statements of identity or circumstance provided by the person at the centre of the record.

Summit delegate looking at images from the Postcard Show. (Photograph © Marlene Habib).

Bringing the experience of Forgotten Australians to the Imagined Archive from another perspective was the Parragirls video installation It’s Time for Transparency. This artwork addresses stigma, secrecy, erasure and exposure in institutional records and personal narratives and makes a powerful call for change in the name of children’s futures. Produced in 2016 for the Living Traces exhibition, the artwork was created by Jenny McNally in conjunction with the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project (PFFP), a social history and contemporary art project based at the site of the former Parramatta Girls Home.

In keeping with the aims of the Summit as maintaining a future focus as well as a past perspective, the Imagined Archive exhibition also included artwork by young people with more recent experience in out of home care. We were fortunate to be able to display a group show by the newly-formed and multitalented Aboriginal Youth Art Collective, a social enterprise offshoot of VACCA’s art mentoring program. These programs recognise art as bridge and bond, as the VACCA website emphasises: “by strengthening children and young people’s cultural awareness, identity and connection to community we build their resilience.”

Contributions by a second group of young care leavers were largely steered by Isla and Rhiannon (Rizz) – two young women introduced to the project by the CREATE Foundation. Isla and Rizz were also the presenters on Day 1 of the Summit of “Missing Pieces”, a participatory session that they devised to underline the critical interconnection of records and identity, emphasising that people working with records need to understand them not simply as files, but as part of people’s lives.

Putting the pieces together: (L-R) Annelie de Villiers (archivist), Amanda Shaw (South Australia’s Guardian for Children and Young People), and Jim Luthy (CLAN advocate) take part in the Missing Pieces activity. (Photograph © Marlene Habib).

As a researcher, archivist, and visual artist it was an extraordinary experience to coordinate and contribute to the Imagined Archive exhibition. Art as both a metaphor and mechanism for archival process is a productive field for developing new knowledge about how people make, use, and understand archives. The Imagined Archives project (led by Monash University’s Centre for Organisational and Social Informatics) is taking a practice-based research approach to help articulate this knowledge and invest it in developing systems that will better cater to lifelong needs of children and the adults they become.

In enlisting art as a social response to situations of individual and structural trauma, the Imagined Archives project is not conducting research on art therapy; although we acknowledge that can be an important function of creative practice. The project extends an invitation for people with lives interrupted by ‘care’ to take an active role in research that pursues art as activism, advocacy and archive; and by doing so to explore how art might expose possibilities for radical change in recordkeeping and archival information systems.

Catalogue brochures for the Imagined Archive exhibition; cover artwork ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ © Trebor. (Photograph © Marlene Habib).

Author: Dr Nina Lewis
Nina is a Research Fellow in the Monash Faculty of Information Technology and coordinator for the Imagined Archives project. She has substantial professional experience working in the archives sector, and is a previous Program Manager of the Find and Connect web resource. If you have an interest in the Imagined Archives research project, you can email