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Recent withdrawal from public access of important ‘migrated archives’

Written by Mandy Banton |

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘migrated archives’ are colonial government records removed clandestinely from 37 former British colonies at independence.  They were hidden from view, their very existence denied, for decades until finally deposited in the UK National Archives (TNA) in 2012-13 under the reference FCO 141.  A few weeks ago TNA withdrew the entire collection from public access.  Coincidentally or not, the withdrawal immediately followed requests to film some parts of the records, which had been turned down.

In an email to a researcher TNA stated that the series was withdrawn ‘in order for our Collection Care team to carry out a condition assessment’.  The assessment found evidence of ‘historical preservation treatment of these files indicating insecticide use’.  It would be helpful for TNA to publish this report together with its opinion of the potential risk of insecticide contamination whether to documents or to persons handling them. 

Until then, given the sensitive and contested history of the migrated archives  there are bound to be suspicions of ulterior motive.  Professor Tony Badger, who served as the independent reviewer overseeing the release of FCO 141, has noted the impossibility of alleviating the legacy of suspicion created by the failure of the FCO to acknowledge the existence of the migrated archives.

What has happened to cause this examination of the documents?  Given the usual backlog of conservation work it seems unlikely that this was a routine exercise.   Is it really possible that FCO 141 (consisting of 25,000 plus files) was suddenly considered a priority? 

If there is insecticide contamination, how was it caused?  It is hardly possible that 37 former colonial governments, over a period of many years, would have treated documentation before it was sent to the UK.  Is it possible that FCO so treated the collection during the long years it was stored in its various UK repositories?  If so, why was it not known about earlier?

Since withdrawal of the series TNA has treated researchers wishing to use the documentation with indifference, if not contempt.  There is no notification of the situation on the web site, or in the general catalogue entry for FCO 141.  Only if one checks the catalogue description for an individual file does one find the message ‘This record is not available to order. More information may be available in the catalogue description’.  There is no further information in the catalogue. 

Users of the catalogue may therefore know that specific files are not available, but will not be aware that the entire collection has been withdrawn.  They may well go on and on searching fruitlessly for the information they require.

Individual enquiries to TNA appear to have been answered by relatively junior staff working to a script.  An update on the situation was promised for 20 June but no announcement was made.  A further update is promised for the end of July. 

This is, of course, exactly the time of year when overseas researchers are most likely to be visiting TNA.  A Kenyan student at a US university was one frustrated user when she travelled to the UK having put in an advance order only to be denied access.  She was brave enough – or maybe just angry enough – to demand a meeting with a manager.  This outlined the conservation concerns, but did not improve the situation for her.