Archives are full of poisons. I used to work in the archives of a medical hospital where we kept a jar for making radium water, and where someone once casually sent my boss a bag of insulation pads dusty with old asbestos. But even without drugs and decaying industrial matter, many materials become dangerous as they age. Archivists can tell that old film is dangerously deteriorating by its distinctive smell of vinegar (actually corrosive acetic acid), and many plastics start to off-gas and turn brittle within a human lifetime.
The materials in the collection we’re processing right now—Peoples Temple photographs and documents—are no exception. Some photo negatives have turned acidic, and most of the rest are encased in fragile plastic which in the worst cases is permanently stuck to the images underneath.
We can avert this decay by putting the photos into new, safer plastic sleeves. This is how we will spend the first few weeks of our time with these twenty thousand images: carefully cutting apart brittle plastic to rescue the photos and give them safe homes.
In the context of the Peoples Temple, I see this as powerfully symbolic of what archivists do. We are removing the poison from the collection. We are making it safe for people to look at. Trauma is radioactive—it has a half-life—but by taking these slides from their rusted paperclips and decaying binders, we can clean up the damaged soil so that something can grow again.
|Man and boy welding, Jonestown, circa 1977-1978], Photographs of Peoples Temple in the United States and Guyana, PC 010, California Historical Society.|
Many of the photos are of marginalized people, especially the African Americans who were inspired by the charged Temple atmosphere to build a new world in Guyana. The most familiar images of Jonestown are of corpses. In these images, we see living people, idealists who had stories to tell that weren’t about Jones, and who were able to empower themselves with the stories he told—about faith, about politics.
|Young Peoples Temple members resting on bus trip, possibly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Photographs of Peoples Temple in the United States and Guyana, PC 010, California Historical Society|
He betrayed them, of course. He weaponized appropriation, he played on the despair of marginalized people but stole their hope for himself, and he talked without listening. What I hope to do, by rescuing these photos from their poisonous clothing, is to create an archive of images that reverses those sentences: “They were betrayed, of course. Their faith and their despair and their hope was stolen, was appropriated. They were spoken to and never listened to.” Reversing a sentence this way makes it less grammatical, but sometimes more honest. In the search for reparative justice, the object—the person who is made an object by another—is more important than the subject.