History Matters - and so do Archives! Interview with Chief Archivist Jens Boel, UNESCO Archives

History Matters - And so do archives! Interview with chief archivist Jens Boel, UNESCO Archives

What impact did UNESCO have in the world between 1945 and 1975? This is the million euro question an international team of researchers will try to answer over the coming years thanks to funding provided by Denmark. Where does such an interest for UNESCO history come from and why? Jens Boel gives his point of view. Interview conducted by Jasmina Šopova for "Unescommunity", UNESCO’s internal communication site, in September 2013.

What is the background of this project?

Poul Duedahl, a young history professor at the University of Aalborg in Denmark, proposed this project to the Danish Research Council for Independent Research and brought home this nice success. Duedahl and the two professors with whom he is co-directing the project – Aigul Kulnazarova (from Kazakhstan, based in Japan) and Michelle Brattain (from the USA) – have all participated in the UNESCO History Project, which we launched at UNESCO in 2004. The premise of the new research project is that although a number of studies have been published on the Organization’s intellectual history, very little is known about UNESCO’s actual impact.

Will the new Danish-funded project interact with the UNESCO History Project?

Very much so. One of the objectives of the UNESCO History Project is to make better use of the Organization’s archives. This is also why I was designated as the project coordinator. We have more than 10,000 linear metres of paper records going back to the days of the “pre-history” of UNESCO, since we have the privilege of preserving the archives of the League of Nations’ International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (1925-46). Our holdings also include more than 5 million electronic documents and significant audio-visual collections and the Multimedia Archives Platform, which hosts more than 6,000 videos and audio recordings.

The scholars from the Danish research team will use all these sources and will start by coming to UNESCO in March 2014 to participate in a workshop organized in close collaboration with the History Project, and which will be attended by some of the world’s leading intellectuals in the field of transnational history.

Where does the UNESCO History Project stand today?

The Project is an ongoing one. Its first major activity was an international symposium on UNESCO’s history, held as part of the Organization’s 60th anniversary (16-18 November 2005). Nine round tables took place – after an opening ceremony that included a memorable intervention by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the last of his lifetime. That was a great moment!

One round table focused on the oral history of UNESCO. It was organized by AFUS [Association of Former UNESCO Staff Members]. Our former colleagues are very supportive and committed to the UNESCO History Project. One year later, we launched the UNESCO oral history initiative with the objective of collecting personal accounts of persons who have marked our history – from inside, such as former Director-General Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, and personalities from outside who have been deeply involved with UNESCO.
Since then we’ve organized a series of international conferences, notably in Cambridge [UK, 2009] on issues of methodology and epistemology in relation to the history of international organizations: in Dakar [Senegal, 2009] on UNESCO and decolonization; and in Heidelberg [Germany, 2010] on UNESCO and the Cold War. The major outcomes of these conferences, were presented at the Congress of International Historical Sciences in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in August 2010.

Thanks to the UNESCO History Project we’ve created a network of about 600 historians, students and scholars, who are included in our mailing list and who regularly receive information on research about UNESCO.
Looking ahead, we’ve been invited to organize a special session on UNESCO’s history at the next Congress of International Historical Sciences, in Jinan, China, in August 2015. The same year, in November, UNESCO will celebrate its 70th anniversary and we would like to organize a seminar on that occasion. I think that would be a great opportunity to show how and why UNESCO’s history and archives matter.

And why do they matter?

Understanding where we come from is essential for knowing where we should go. This is of course not only true for UNESCO. But at this very moment, when UNESCO is trying to affirm its relevance and refocus its strategy and programmes, understanding how and why we’ve been able to “make a difference” should be at the heart of our reflection.

All along its history, the Organization has been able to launch ideas and / or find answers to questions of concern to the world. Remember the Copyright Convention, the creation of CERN, water as an issue for peace, culture as an essential component of development, ethical dimensions of human development, bridging the digital divide, the need to safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage, holistic approaches to education, the publication and dissemination of regional and global histories…

Inevitable shortcomings aside, these experiences bring hope because they demonstrate that with the right combination of timing and relevance it is possible to have a real impact on societies and their development. In some cases good ideas at the right time have produced excellent results despite very limited human and financial resources. An example is the Memory of the World Programme.

Essentially, the archives of the Organization constitute UNESCO’s memory. They not only provide evidence of what UNESCO has thought and done – and why – they are also there to keep us accountable. Accountability is an essential obligation for the Organization vis-à-vis Member States and, ultimately, the citizens of the world.

What is so special about UNESCO’s history?

It is a history of both political courage and constraints. UNESCO has an ethical mission that goes beyond short-term considerations. Over the years UNESCO has often taken positions that were not in line with the interests of some Member States, even powerful ones. Freedom of expression and protection of journalists are UNESCO policies that go back to the very beginnings and these positions don’t please everybody. The fight against racism and apartheid was one of UNESCO’s most important battles in the first decades. Activists in the South of the USA marched for civil rights in the 1950s brandishing UNESCO’s declarations against racism. South Africa actually left UNESCO in 1955 because of the Organization’s work against apartheid. And let’s not forget that in the 1960s UNESCO supported former colonies’ walk towards freedom and independence, which also included the struggle for “decolonizing the minds”.

UNESCO’s intellectual role and mandate is not only to preach, it is an obligation to show political courage in critical situations. Without that, the Organization would lose its very raison d’être… As Martin Luther King said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."



Research Coordinator Poul Duedahl

Kroghstraede 1, 9220 Aalborg O, Denmark

Phone: +45 9940 9141
Email: duedahl@cgs.aau.dk