Archives Alive

Youth watch a film on the beach in 1947. (Photo by Willem van de Poll, Nationaal Archief)

When we think of archives, we might imagine a cold and sterile room. Harsh lights shine down on row after row of shelves, each stacked high with boxes and binders. Inside, there is page after page of the most boring documents possible, legal and administrative paperwork. It is dry and lifeless to the last word.

This image of an archive isn’t necessarily wrong. Many documents are boring, but still need to be saved. Storage space for these millions of documents won’t be designed as a fun space to hang out. Most of us probably won’t visit an archive anyway. More of the world’s archives are becoming accessible online every day.

Donkey riding in 1964. (Photo by Boy Lawson, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen)

When archives are online, we don’t have to think about the vast rows of shelves, or even the hum of the data center where the online archive is hosted. We access the archive via a web page, and search or browse to find what we want. As archives have gone online, they have also started with materials that people are likely to be interested in.

The National Archives of the Netherlands and the National Museum of World Cultures both have small, but wonderful collections of photos from St. Martin that you can view online. There are some familiar photos that have appeared in books and on postcards. They capture familiar views and buildings like the courthouse.

Look closely, and you can also find some vibrant slices of life from days past. You can see youth entranced while watching a movie on the beach. Kids ride donkeys in the midday sun. Vegetables are on sale in the street in Marigot. A woman prepares lobsters at an outdoor table.

Preparing lobsters in Simpson Bay, 1947. (Photo by Willem van de Poll, Nationaal Archief)

These photos capture everyday life and human emotion. They bring us closer to feeling what life was like back then. Most of the photos were taken by outsiders. They were consciously documenting life on the island, so we are experiencing the island through a kind of filter. But some of the images are still very much alive.

There is a missing piece that we can still provide. Stories from elders and memories passed down through families can help give meaning and context to these images. While these elders are still here with us, we should take the time to listen to their part of the story.

Marigot market in 1964. (Photo by Boy Lawson, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen)

Do you have a memory about one of the images in these online archives? Share it by sending it to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.

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