While the Department of National Archives is currently undergoing a much-deserved facelift, its doors are open to many researchers, academics and students who walk day in and day out, accessing and perusing important documents of yesteryear.
The ongoing construction work and various other improvements were brought to light by the existing Director General Dr. Nadeera Rupesinghe. However, recently a statement was issued by a group of academics, condemning attempts made by the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Cultural and Religious Affairs to remove her from her post. In this backdrop, the Daily Mirror spoke to Dr. Rupesinghe who extensively spoke about her area of interest, changes brought about to the Department during her tenure and challenges faced.
Q What inspired you to study on the Dutch colonial intervention as a speciality area?
I cannot say that I was particularly inspired to study the Dutch colonial intervention at the start. After finishing a BA honours degree in history at the University of Colombo I was more interested in revisiting the ancient history of Sri Lanka. Yet it so happened that I was offered a scholarship to study the Dutch language and begin postgraduate studies in The Netherlands. The scholarship was awarded by Leiden University under a Dutch Government funded programme to sponsor students from former territories held by the Dutch East India Company and Dutch Government. This resulted in an MPhil and PhD.
Once I started work at the Sri Lanka National Archives on the Dutch archives, I was hooked. I have said in an interview ten years ago to a Dutch magazine that I will not stop research based on the Dutch records. It was startling at first to read the voices of Sri Lankans from the 1700s and 1800s. The Dutch ruled over the coastal territory from 1638 to 1796. Such testimony in handwritten registers maintained by the Dutch, cannot be heard so clearly in local material from that period or even before that. My first encounter with the richness of the sources was through judicial interrogations of local residents in the Galle district.
You see, at that time all residents were practically nominal Christians. But it was only if they were ‘true’ Christians that they would be allowed to take an oath on their evidence, so they were being questioned on how Christian they were. They were quite cheeky and even reckless in their answers at times. When asked if they knew the ninth commandment, one local said he didn’t know because he had been too busy working for the Dutch East India Company when he was young and therefore didn’t have time to learn it. Another said he knew only the prayer ‘Our Father’. This was from 1782.
All that I saw through writing that had faded away so much over the years, that Leonard Blussé, a senior Dutch professor who visited the Sri Lanka Archives in 2011for a conference insisted that I was making it up because he couldn’t see anything on the relevant page! But I tried showing him with the now antique magnifying glass that is still in use in the Research Room at the National Archives. I believe the Dutch records have the oldest most extensive testimony of our ancestors. And there is still so much more to discover.
Q Why is history as important a subject as other compulsory subjects in school curricula?
To me, history is an important subject because from a young age you must understand that there are many interpretations to issues from the past. That the story that is carved in stone may not be the only story. That you have sources, and sources can be interpreted in many ways. History, if taught properly, teaches you the lesson that every interpretation you believe in must be backed up by evidence. We may never realise the pitfalls we have fallen into by resorting to evidential sources that are limited, forged beyond detection or truncated. But we tell stories with whatever is left. What we say must be based on solid evidence. Young students should take away that lesson from the study of history.
Another important skill is to consider events in terms of long-term developments, so that we understand trends over time and are not limited to short-termism. This understanding is why Jo Guldi and David Armitage, in the book History Manifesto, recommended that politicians should appoint historians as advisors to formulate evidence-based policies. The study of history makes you question short-term views. A view of the long-term through understanding the relevancy of history is what is meant by learning from history and not repeating the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, this is not how history is taught in schools in Sri Lanka.
Q Could you tell us about some findings?
If I may refer to my own research into the Dutch intervention in Sri Lanka, my monograph into a Dutch case study of a district-level judicial court that they set up, revealed adaptation, negotiation and navigation on the part of the Dutch administration and the local population. Underlying it all, however, was the firm hand of the Dutch East India Company. They held the whip in that hand.
Q Tell us about the improvements done at the Dept. of National Archives during your tenure
Two of the most important areas we were able to work on during the past two and a half years were recruitment and the renovation of the main building. We have carried out some senior recruitments already, and we’re in the process of promoting lower ranks to the senior level as well. Without filling those senior positions, we cannot employ a new batch of more than fifty Archival Officers who will be the next generation of archivists in this country. We’re pending approval from the Treasury for their recruitment.
Secondly, I think that being able to work on the renovation of the main building, which is more than forty years old, was essential in order to begin conceptualizing the introduction of new technologies to the Archives such as a digital repository and automation of day to day processes. Because we had the extension building, we were able to embark on the renovation of the main building which holds many kilometres of documents if you line them up from one end to another. Former Director General Dr Saroja Wettasinghe must be credited for getting the extension building constructed. Cleaning, reboxing and carefully taking checklists of these records before shifting them is essential. But also labour intensive.
Last year, the staff worked very hard and shifted nearly five kilometres of documents to repositories in the new extension building that have the necessary climate controls and advanced security systems. The repositories in the main building will also be equipped with state-of-the-art technologies through the ongoing renovation. These high standards are essential for the preservation of our priceless archives.
Q An Archives deals with history. Why is it an important institution to the public?
You’re right that an archives ‘deals with history’. But it is also a vital institution that deals with Government accountability and the right to information. By protecting the nation’s documentary heritage, we strive to protect national identity, accountability and memory. It is an institution that is vital for the creation of new knowledge. The Archives must effectively manage and preserve the nation’s documentary heritage. This includes both public and private records. Records mean paper, audio-visual and born digital records.
It’s true that not many people understand the importance of an archive. When our main building renovation is complete, we plan to hold an exhibition of the treasures of the archives on the theme ‘Archives by the people, for the people’. The archives hopes to display the original documents in climate-controlled cabinets. The important thing is that people understand, for example, why the Kandyan convention of 1815 or a land register from 1760 or another document is important to them, what story it tells of them today, and why we should preserve it.
Q Now that everything is being digitalised how is the Department keeping up with technology?
We have taken small steps in this direction. It is encouraging that the new President of Sri Lanka is keen on introducing e-governance and bringing public services to the home. We have a long way to go to reach such a stage, but I believe that with recruitment and investment in training we would be able to meet a higher target. The most important factor is human resources and we must invest in people in order to make it work.
In that way I believe we would be able to introduce and sustain new technologies of archival management. People must still visit the Archives to even find out what is in our indices. For now, we are happy that we are working with software developed by the International Council on Archives for the online presentation of our archival descriptions. For any archives, it is a very special day when all its inventories are available online. The department is working towards meeting this target soon.
Q Let’s talk about historians and those who are interested in studying history. Are there individuals to disseminate this knowledge to other segments of society? What’s the role of archives in this process?
Historians are often accused of not reaching out to the public. Academic discussions on history, it is believed, should be left to scholarly writing. It is true that it is sometimes difficult to explain all the nuances of an incident or phenomenon from hundreds of years ago, but I think we should attempt to do that for a general public as well. We may never arrive at the ‘truth’ of a situation.
It will always be subject to interpretation, which would change from historian to historian. However, we all understand that the most important thing we deal with is historical evidence.
That evidence, in documentary form, is collected in an archives. It is preserved in an archives. If a National Archives of a country has been effectively taking action to take in evidential records from public institutions and private collections, we should have the documentary evidence to write histories of a nation. An archives plays a key role in the appraisal of documents for permanent preservation or destruction, and if it fails in this respect it is not fulfilling its responsibility towards public records management and thereby protecting the memory of the nation.
Q One cannot find many specialty degree programmes relating to history. What do you have to say about that and how could someone study history to apply it with the modern era?
Unfortunately, history is not a subject that students tend to study at a higher level in large numbers in Sri Lanka. You have to enter the public universities to study it or be able to travel abroad. There are also no Masters and PhD programmes that are full-time in Sri Lanka. This is a disadvantage in promoting graduate and post-graduate studies in history in Sri Lanka. The value of studying history at a higher level is that you thereby produce intellectuals who could see events and incidents in the light of long-term developments, and not be restricted to short-term solutions and gains. This is an important perspective that needs to be instilled in young minds.
The study of history can also lead to interdisciplinary study. Historical thinking is important in many fields of study. For instance, engineering students need to understand the history of science and technology. This is by the way, but I was I think the first historian to be appointed as a Senior Lecturer to a Faculty of Engineering in Sri Lanka—at the Open University of Sri Lanka—yet because the post at the National Archives was closer to my PhD studies, I opted for the latter. I think though that I would have enjoyed that vocation as well.
Q What challenges have you faced during your tenure?
The biggest challenge has been dealing with the many changes of our line ministries. It has been two and a half years since I was appointed, and during that period the department has been administered under five different ministries. It is difficult in such cases to adopt a steady action plan. In the United Kingdom, the National Archives is a non-ministerial department. A senior archivist, Prof Eric Ketelaar, once told me that the most important thing, whatever your ministry, is that your minister is interested in archives.
Our current minister is the Prime Minister himself. The National Film, Television and Sound Archives for instance was established in 2014 at the Department of National Archives during his tenure as President as a result of his direct involvement and interest in the subject. I hope that after the general elections the department would have a more stable relationship with higher levels of government.
Nadeera in a different ‘mode’
A SPECIAL NOTE by Michael Roberts
Alas, internal representations from some of Nadeera Rupesinghe’s junior staff within the the Department of National Archives resulted in her removal sideways into some other department and she is more or less in hibernation. This kind of conspiratorial action and the working ot of jealousies, alas, is not infrequent in Sri Lanka …. and has been a common feature for decades — going back several centuries in both colonial and pre-colonial dispensations.