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Uncovering Emotions in the Archives

While browsing through my emails, I stumbled upon an announcement for a conference presented by the McCord Museum in Montreal, led by conservator and archivist Mathieu Lapointe. The title “Uncovering Emotions in the Archives: The Shared Sensibilities Project“ immediately caught my attention. This proposal invites us to approach archives with a more nuanced and empathetic lens, rather than a strictly clinical or scientific one. For a museum – just as Nil’s collection of archives -, which is home to a vast collection of textual archives, personal documents, letters, and intimate journals, these historical records offer a unique window into the emotions, sensibilities, attitudes, and values of the authors and creators of the past, who are often shrouded in the folds of the unknown.


Although the process of categorization and digitization is still in its early stages, I am already convinced that Nil’s archives contain numerous documents that warrant a deeper exploration of their emotional resonance. What do I mean by “emotional resonance“ What kinds of traces might be hidden in Nil's written and photographic archives? To answer these questions, I will rely on Mathieu Lapointe’s communication. The McCord Museum has established three main categories of keywords, which are further subdivided into several subcategories related to sensitive aspects.


1. Emotions

  • Affection

  • Contempt

  • Fear

  • Love

  • Melancholy

  • Tenderness

  • Etc.


2. Senses and Physical Sensations

  • Comfort

  • Discomfort

  • Pain

  • Pleasure

  • Sound

  • Texture

  • Warmth

  • Etc.


3. Attitudes, Social Values, and Ideologies

  • Altruism

  • Equality

  • Inclusiveness

  • Justice

  •  Modesty

  • Morality

  • Sacrifice

  • Sexism

  • Etc.


Regarding the last categories, the museum provided the full list of subcategories -

I apologize for the poor quality of the screen shot!


Image 1: List of Subcategories for “Attitudes, Social Values, and Ideologies“


It is evident that while I can draw inspiration from the categories established by

the museum, it will be more pertinent to define categories that directly relate to Nil’s work and archives. Nil’s affirmations of value, attitudes, and ideological discourses are crucial for illustrating Paris in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, as well as the transformations that occur within its own approach. In this sense, keywords such as feminism, anticolonialism, exile, politics, globalization, migration, and subversivity will be more suitable for discussing its archives.


It goes without saying that this valorization of these sensitive traces within Nil's

archives cannot be fully effective and useful for future researchers without a fine

indexation - an operation that involves attributing keywords to archival units to facilitate their retrieval - and a comprehensive description of its archives.We will see how this“conscience“ and “consideration“ of sensibility takes shape as the project progresses, but I am convinced that it aligns perfectly with the vision that Nil and I share about this experience. Art - which, for Nil, are archives, as seen in one of my previous blog posts - is a thing of the sensible: let us work with the appropriate tools.


Finally, what could this approach bring to Nil’s final archive? The potential

outcomes are numerous. Not only could this initiative attract the attention of other

researchers and inspire new initiatives, but it would also provide a concrete support for historical research in the field of sensibilities (a current that has developed extensively since the 1980s) and further facilitate the dissemination of archives. And who knows, this initiative might also reveal data that another lens (social, political, or juridical) would not have allowed us to see.


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