Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Importance of Archives and Artifacts: A Dystopian View

"There are people who call themselves Archivists," Ky says. "Back when the Hundred Committee made their selections, the Archivists knew the works that didn't get selected would become a commodity. So they saved some of them. The Archivists have illegal ports, ones they've built themselves, for storing things. They saved the Thomas poem I bought you." - Matched by Allie Condie

Matched is a Dystopian young adult novel. The false Utopia it examines compares to the worlds we find in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Lois Lowry's The Giver. To me, what makes this novel special is the attention that it gives to artifacts and archivists, recognizing the value of items of cultural heritage. How attached are we to our personal items? What does it mean to have them?
(Please be aware that this post contains some spoilers, but I don't think what I give away is not predictable.)

"The Society" -- the higher-ups in the fictional world of Oria -- have saved 100 bits of approved information. "They created commissions to choose the hundred best of everything- Hundred Songs, Hundred Paintings, Hundred Stories, Hundred Poems." The Society controls what people eat, where they live, who they marry (i.e. the title Matched), what they do, what they remember, when they die and what happens to their bodies after they die. But the growing dissatisfaction of the main character hinges heavily on the objects and information that she is allowed and disallowed to possess.

Cassia, our heroine, first realized that not all is right with the world on the day her grandfather is scheduled for death. He asks her to bring him one of the two artifacts that she owns. It is a compact that belonged to her grandmother. He shows her a poem that is hidden within the back. It is a small piece of paper of a type that Cassia has never seen. The author spends a lot of time discussing the details of the artifacts. People in this society are exposed to very little, so anything out of the ordinary makes a big impact. The small piece of paper has the poem by Dylan Thomas with the line, "Do not go gentle into that good night." This unapproved poem smuggled by her elders soon becomes Cassia's motto as her view of society, not unexpectedly, begins to unravel.

Citizens must register artifacts passed down through family and they apparently can only have one, but this is not totally clear. Artifacts of this type in the book include a watch and a compass. There are also society approved artifacts including Silver and gold boxes that hold small, pre-determined and approved mementos accumulated during lives. Gold boxes are for girls and silver for boys. A main inanimate "character" in the story is a swatch of fabric set in glass. This item is given to female citizens by the society after "Match Day. The girls borrow dresses for the day they meet their match and then receive the artifact to remember the event. (Presumably there are conservators who spend their days setting these items into the glass.)

After a scene when she talks to her mother about her own dress artifact and love, Cassia describes a pivot point when she willingly breaks with society's expectations. Society has told them to treasure these mementos, that if the glass on the object breaks the fabric would disintegrate and "everything would be ruined."

Alone in Cassia's room she focuses on her artifact. "...My framed piece of dress in its bit of glass. I wrap my hand in one of my socks and then press down, hard. A faint snap. I lift my hand.

"It would be easy if no one watched, if no one could hear me. If these walls weren't so thin and my life weren't so transparent. I could throw the glass against the wall, smash it with a rock, destroy with abandon and noise. I think the glass would make a glittery sound when it broke; I would like to see it burst into a million pieces and shine all the way down. But instead, I have to be careful.

"Another long silvery crack runs across the surface of the glass. Underneath, the smooth ice-green cloth is undisturbed. Carefully, I pull the pieces of glass apart, lift the largest one up, and pull out the fabric."

Author Allie Condie makes us examine our objects and look at them a bit differently. She reminds us to appreciate our stories and information. She shows us who remembers the value of information -- the Archivists -- and how their institutions stand for posterity. She makes us twist the world we know and think about what it would be like if information, memories, and artifacts were forbidden; if what we could tangibly and intangibly keep were controlled. This is a fiction book that pronounces what we value as cultural heritage professionals and emphasizes the importance of what we do. I recommend it to those who enjoy dystopian young adult literature as a well-paced, entertaining, if not somewhat predictable story. It is also worth a read with an eye toward the message about our cultural heritage for those who are not as familiar with the genre.

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