Globalisation has allowed society, on the surface, to be connected like never before. High-speed internet and social media has meant people can keep in touch and reach out to ever-increasing numbers. However, this connectivity, this network, though ever larger and more intertwined is not that deep. That is true, until one looks into the vast amount of items at the fingertips of historians, social scientists, scholars and students at The Royal Commonwealth Society’s (RCS) archives at the University of Cambridge Library. The archive is described as:
’A treasure-trove of information, pictorial and written, print and manuscript, on the Commonwealth and Britain's former colonial territories, comprising over 300,000 printed items, over 800 archival collections (including manuscript diaries, correspondence, pictures, artefacts, cine films, scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings) and over 120,000 photographs’.
This visit to the RCS archive rounded off a week of meetings and events for the Society’s biennial International Meeting, which brought together the RCS’s youth and branch networks from across the Commonwealth.
It was here that I realised the important difference between being contactable and connected. The hard working team at the library had put on display a buffet of archived history from around the Commonwealth. Hundreds of old black and white photographs, postcards with scribbled details to loved ones, documents, letters and other historical items that in some small or large part built up to create a visible and physical connection between all people of the Commonwealth.
Today, thousands of pictures and videos are posted online on various social media platforms. Though this allows them to be viewed by millions around the world, something is missing. The ability to pick up and feel the indentation of the handwriting on the back of a photograph, the creased edge on a letter where it was once folded into an envelope by a nurse in Nigeria, made me far more connected physically and emotionally to other citizens of the Commonwealth; past and present. Branch members of the RCS from all over the Commonwealth flicked through the various albums and immediately began discussing how they were connected to the history in front of them. The great wealth of culture stretching far back bound the individuals together. A combination of pride and mutual respect of culture had taken over the room. I was struck by the power these obscure items had. On their own not much can be said however, when collated, archived and displayed, these small items created a family tree of shared culture and community. No individual’s history was more or less important during that day. The mutual respect and tolerance typified in the Commonwealth Charter in theory, was reflected in the reality of the discussions that occurred surrounding the archives.
It would be irresponsible to suggest this history has no other purpose than to be stored and collected. The archives have the capability of showing anyone with Commonwealth connections the value of preservation for generations to come. They add perspective and a sense of belonging at a multitude of levels from individuals and families to regions, nations and the Commonwealth. This is especially true in today’s fast, forever in flux world. It can be quite easy to get lost. However, the shared history and culture found in the RCS archives gives people an anchor and roots them to their communities throughout history, and into the future.
The Commonwealth theme for 2019 is ‘A Connected Commonwealth’. How appropriate this theme is when referring to the archives. They certainly show how we are not separated by our differences but are in fact connected by them.
‘Treasures from the Royal Commonwealth Society’ is a new online exhibition, which offers extraordinary insights into the Commonwealth and Britain’s former colonial territories. The exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Royal Commonwealth Society (1868 – 2018) and the 25th anniversary of its library and archives becoming part of Cambridge University Library. Explore all of the exhibits.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.