Archives in Timor-Leste, 2009: Summary update

My brief on-the-ground exploration of archival developments in Timor-Leste during August leaves me both encouraged and bewildered.

Encouraged because the interest in archival matters I found in Dili in 2003 continues, unabated, to drive several interesting institutional developments and encouraged by the very strong interest in Timor archival materials being held in Australia.

Bewildered by the funding, building, training and personnel difficulties that all archives in Timor face, the uncertainties of government decision-making processes and what seems, in part, a rather negative competitiveness between some developing archival projects.

More on all that later. For now, here is a taste of what Cecily Gilbert and I managed to learn in a few short days in the very busy run-up to the 10th anniversary of the decisive independence ballot of 30 August 1999.

Arquivo Nacional
The National Archive, created to hold past and current government records, was established in the early years after independence. Since 2003 the Arquivo has been allocated a building, but does not yet appear to be a major government priority. A sizeable collection of Portuguese-era administrative records are held in reasonable storage conditions but the Arquivo does not have sufficient storage space to properly house a large volume of seemingly unexamined Indonesia-era administrative records. Transfers of independence-era government records have just begun. There does not appear to be any available listings of collection holdings and public access to the collection remains in planning stages. A detailed legislative basis for the Arquivo Nacional’s existence and function, in draft form in 2003, has yet to be adopted. The Director of the archive, Pedro Fernandes, hopes the National Archive will eventually house some Timor-related archival materials held in Australia and elsewhere, but believes it will be some years before the institution will be ready to do this.

Materials collected in Timor as evidence for the monumental ‘Chega’ report form the centre-piece of the archives of East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). Since CAVR’s wind-up in 2005, the Post-CAVR Secretariat has managed the archive, notably conducting a copy program funded under the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme whereby digital copies of original materials are held in London for preservation and (later) access purposes. Both paper and audio-visual materials are currently housed in reasonable archival conditions. Preservation copying of a large collection of audio-tapes of victim statements and other interviews is an important future task which will require significant resources. Access to the archives is possible with applications considered on a case by case basis but is somewhat hampered by incomplete documentation on collection content. Planning for a successor institution is well-developed but currently stalled by Parliament’s continued delay in formally considering the recommendations of Chega. The proposed institution includes a human rights documentation centre based on the existing archive and acquisition of related material from abroad.

Centro Audiovisual Max Stahl Timor Leste (CAMSTL)
Currently housed in part of the Independence Memorial Hall in Farol and directed by the inimitable Max Stahl. In addition to holding historical footage from the occupation years, CAMSTL maintains an active program of recording, for the historical record, video of current events and interviews on Timorese experience of occupation. Timorese employees are trained in camera work, editing and archival procedures and work with volunteers to transcribe all spoken words in footage held. CAMSTL has created a number of films for sale on DVD. Max Stahl has recently concluded an agreement with INA, the French national audiovisual institute, to house archival copies of Timor footage for long term preservation and access. Detailed public listings of the content of CAMSTL are not yet available. We did not have time to learn more about the funding structure and long-term administrative and viability planning for CAMSTL.

National Library
The ‘new kid on the block’ in archival terms, a National Library is under very active consideration at the highest levels. Part-funded by an international donor, a building site has been allocated (but not yet made public), books and temporary storage space have been acquired, plans for appointing an international advisor, beginning staff training and conducting an international building design competition are in progress. Planning is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Culture, Virgilio Smith. It is still too early to know what the final form of the National Library will be but that will become clearer in the coming months. The archival aspect arises from a declared interest by ministerial advisers to acquire for the Library Australian and other Timor solidarity archival materials from abroad. There has also been some tentative discussion of the idea of co-locating some existing archival institutions at the new Library. Our guess is the sceptical reaction from existing archives to this idea will persist at least until they have a clearer picture of the emerging National Library.

Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum
Opened in 2005, the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum (AMRT) is located near the current (temporary) National Parliament building and the National University. The building houses a selection of Falintil weapons, radios and other equipment along with informational posters and displays of resistance documents (copies). The archival centrepiece of the AMRT is a large collection of documents gathered from resistance figures and supporters inside East Timor from 2002 to the present. Many of the collected documents are currently held in Lisbon at the Mario Soares Foundation (FMS) which has digitised the materials. With the exception of some politically sensitive materials, the digitised copies are available internationally on the internet through the AMRT website (managed by FMS) and a dedicated standalone computer in the Museum building in Dili. Aware of some questions in Dili about the ownership and management of the AMRT, along with some disquiet about documents being kept in Lisbon, a Timorese representative board of management is under construction. Also under construction is an imminent expansion of the existing building to add secure, archival standard storage and work areas and commercial seminar, bookshop and cafe facilities to assist AMRT funding for the longer term.

There’s more, much more, to say about these and other archival matters inside Timor-Leste today. Keep an eye on the ‘Timorese Archives’ section of this blog over the coming month.

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