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Telling stories about what is not there

Knowledge production from the ground up through the ‘living archives’ in Malaysia

What exactly is an archive? Who and what are involved in the making and naming of memory projects as archives? What kinds of stories become told through archives, and what stories are muted?

Dr Beth Yahp explores the inner workings of the archive-making process, and invites us to pay closer attention to the everyday stories of objects around us.

1950s Outdoor photography advert by Chan Sam Lock

At Malaysia Design Archive, people share household objects, old magazines, posters or memorabilia that might not be deemed worthy to be collected elsewhere – and yet tell a story about Malaysia’s design culture.  

Advert from the 1950s promoting outdoor photography by Chan Sam Lock.

Photo credit: Malaysia Design Archive

Growing up ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, I was surrounded by stories, and was always struck by the things that were not or could not be said because of my minority status. The idea that the use of narrative in nation-building privileges one race and religion above others, and in doing so discriminates against, erases, or criminalises minority communities, is one that has shaped all of my work. In the project that I undertook with my colleague Dr Fiona Lee from the Department of English in collaboration with graphic designer Ezrena Marwan and internet rights activist jac sm kee, co- founders of Malaysia Design Archive, we directly challenged this practice.

Malaysia Design Archive (MDA) was founded in 2008, at first primarily to document Malaysia’s design and visual culture history. It began as a website, with materials scavenged from flea markets, and stored at home. MDA eventually acquired a physical space for archival material – matchboxes, magazines, hand-drawn architectural drawings – and public interaction with their growing archive. Over time it has also become a space to foster a culture of research and of ‘history from below’ through regular talks, workshops and reading groups.

MDA is very different to a traditional archive. Unlike the bland over airconditioned and highly regulated space of the National Archive in Kuala Lumpur, where knowledge is guarded by multiple permission slips and forms, and appropriate clothing, MDA has an open-door, ‘we take – almost – everything’ policy. It occupies a unique position as an activist archive that offers a platform for Malaysians to contribute to the production of knowledge about our history, culture and society. People share household objects, old magazines, posters or memorabilia that might not be deemed worthy to be collected elsewhere – and yet tell a story about Malaysia’s design culture.  

With a grant from Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, Fiona and I collaborated with MDA to cultivate a creative and ethical storytelling praxis that emphasised the active participation and agency of community members. We designed a series of workshops for diverse participants who were invited to bring a visual artefact that represented the narrative they wanted to construct about their community or family. Participants brought all kinds of things – beads, photographs, pamphlets – and left with a new appreciation of not only their object, but also the role an archive can play in making space for their stories and experiences.

The writing workshops that I ran were part of a process of challenging who has the right to explore and imagine history – personal histories that inflect a larger national story. Through guided visualisations participants were encouraged to imagine where the object belonged – its ‘home’ – or what things might look like from its perspective. During these visualisations, participants were guided in a process of ‘radical attentiveness’ that allowed them to tap into their own historical knowledge and memories associated with the objects. Afterwards, they engaged in ‘speed writing’, a process whereby only the sharpest and perhaps most crucial parts of what they experienced was captured.

Creative and unexpected ideas and actions emerged from our collaboration with MDA. Asked to develop an ‘imagined’ archive, two participants came up with the idea of a bus that travelled around the country collecting, sharing, and creating traditional songs and beads. Another participant, inspired by the workshop, returned to university to study historiography and the politics of memory. Although the project has been stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic, these stories remind us that the archives have continued living, despite the dramatic changes in all of our living circumstances. I look forward to continuing the work online and eventually returning to Malaysia to continue these discussions about how archives can shed light on stories not yet told.  

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Photo credit: Malaysia Design Archive

About the author

Headshot of Beth Yahp
Dr Beth Yahp
Originally from Malaysia, Beth Yahp is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction, whose work has been published in Australia and internationally. Her latest publication is a collection of short stories, 'The Red Pearl and Other Stories' (Vagabond Press, 2017). Her travel memoir 'Eat First, Talk Later' (Penguin Random House, 2015) was shortlisted for the 2018 Adelaide Festival Award for Literature (Non-Fiction). Beth teaches Creative Writing at the University of Sydney.