Am I an expat?: Reflections from an EAC intern
Simon Taylor is a graduate student of Heritage Studies at the University of Amsterdam and recently finished a six-month internship with the Expatriate Archive Centre. This post is a personal reflection of his time with us.
By Simon Taylor
I walked right past the Expatriate Archive Centre when I first came to visit. It is quite easy to miss, inconspicuously located in the ground floor of a terrace house in a largely residential part of The Hague. It also didn’t help that I was quite unfamiliar with The Hague, having only been to the city a couple of times prior, and never to this neighbourhood. But perhaps it was appropriate that I would enter the Expatriate Archive Centre as someone who was unfamiliar with the neighbourhood, city, and, to a certain extent, country in which it is located. After all, the resulting feeling of self-conscious isolation from my surroundings is a key part of the expatriate experience, and overcoming this sense of isolation is a recurring theme in many of the more positive expatriate stories that the archive has collected.
I chose to do my internship at the Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) because I needed work experience and had an established interest in archiving. The EAC was one of the few archives in the Netherlands that had a collection that was primarily in the English language, and so I jumped at the opportunity to do my internship there. Doing an internship is integral to my Master’s course in Heritage Studies, and I had been struggling to find one that suited my interests. If I am honest, I don’t think I’d ever thought of myself as an expat before applying to become an intern at the EAC. I had been doing my Master’s at the University of Amsterdam for around six months, and while I generally felt settled into my new life in the Netherlands, I was still acutely aware of my status as a foreigner. Being a student in another country left me with a somewhat ambiguous identity: I was not a citizen, not a tourist, and not, by most definitions, an immigrant. So what was I? I can’t say I left the EAC with the simple answer of ‘an expatriate’, but my work and interactions at the archive have taught me that such problems of identity often accompany living abroad and that addressing these issues is important on both a personal and societal level.
I discovered that an important part of the work culture at the EAC is that all staff and volunteers eat lunch together at a single table. This may partly be due to necessity (it is a very small space), but I think it is also a good reflection of the ethos of the institution. As we sit and eat together, we would discuss a variety of things — from politics to movies to Eurovision. However mundane the subject I would never fail to be engaged because, as expats, everyone there could provide a different perspective, informed by their experiences in their native countries and their experiences living abroad. In these lunchtime discussions, we shared the same sort of stories that we were working so hard to preserve: stories of cultural differences and similarities, stories of alienation and of acceptance by new communities. These stories are essential in broadening one’s outlook on the world, and for me they highlighted why the work of the EAC was important.
My primary project as an intern at the EAC involved cataloguing the contents of the scrapbooks documenting the annual conferences held by the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas in various European cities between 1931 and 1939. From this I gained a broader insight into the moral conflicts sometimes faced by expatriates: namely, the question of whether it is right for them to openly object to the politics of the country in which they are currently residing. On top of this, I think I learnt a great deal about what it means to be an archivist and to do archival work.
While doing the internship, it was firmly impressed upon me that there is no single narrative within the collection, nor even a unified theme beyond that of a broadly defined version of ‘expatriation’. This is part of what makes an archive distinct from a museum: by presenting only a select few items in a very particular way, a museum has a great deal of control over how the narrative is conveyed. Analysing museums and museum collections was a big part of my course in Heritage Studies, and each one revealed something about the ideology or agenda of the curator, whether it be benign or propagandist. With archives, however, I quickly learnt that ideology-driven narratives were not so straightforwardly apparent. To indiscriminately archive every document that is donated to the EAC would be impossible, so the archivists are necessarily a little selective. The selection process involves making value judgements as to the merits of each document, and therefore can be said to be, in some sense, ideological. In this way, the role of an archivist is somewhat similar to that of a curator. However, unlike a curator, an archivist does not publicly present their collection in a manner designed to convey a particular narrative. Instead, the narratives are created by the researchers making use of the archive. In order to look through the archives, a researcher must first provide a description of their research project. This means that they enter the archive with their own established narrative framework, which can then be built upon using the material on offer. This is not to say that the archives themselves are free of narrative or ideology, but they are essentially formless until interpreted by the researcher.
My time as an intern at the Expatriate Archive Centre is all but at an end, and I know I will look back at the last few months with great fondness. Doing this internship has helped expand my understanding of the world, on a professional, academic and social level. I am leaving the EAC better, more knowledgeable and more proficient than when I entered — and that is the surest sign of a successful internship that I can think of.