The myth of the comprehensive historical archive

From the outset, Wikipedia has espoused the ideals of free and open knowledge, catalyzing a mass authorship of cultural history worldwide. As the site on which narratives are drafted, contested, revised, and cited, Wikipedia attempts a hopeful and earnest approximation of a comprehensive and democratically authored history. This is of course an impossible goal. Realizing an archive that is both complete and democratic is a task of a mythic proportion. It would require establishing technological, educational, and cultural resource equity worldwide, and the deprioritization of Eurocentric historical narratives and English-language Wiki. Nonetheless, Wikipedians are collectively invested in constructing an archive of infinite scope and complexity. We are enamored of this mythic, utopian vision.

Myths as metaphors for infinite tasks of unfathomable scope abound throughout culture. Perhaps the most well known is that of Sisyphus eternally pushing a boulder uphill, and of Penelope’s endless weaving and unweaving her tapestry. The interminable tasks themselves are generally not the focus when we speak of them. Rather, they are metaphors for present or past situations and offer propositions for imagining the future. As with other myths, the quest for a comprehensive encyclopedia is itself significant, but the various discourses it catalyzes and contributes to are just as important. These discourses are Wikipedia-specific but they relate to issues symptomatic of local and international sociopolitical conditions. 

The Black Lunch Table Wikipedia project is inspired by the myth, the potential possibility. The work we do contributes to discourse around resource equity, gender and racial bias, and knowledge gaps within and beyond Wikipedia. Our work both directly and indirectly affects change around those issues. While we don’t imagine our project will be able to solve all of its own goals, we do hope that our engagement with Wikipedia will affect how folks conceive of historical authorship more broadly and that they will come to share our belief that histories are neither static nor linear. Through educating the public about our project, as it works to identify knowledge gaps on Wikipedia, we hope that everyone will feel they can and should contribute to historical authorship, as we all have something at stake in how our histories are told.

Mythic Being : Who is Black Lunch Table?

The Black Lunch Table (BLT) is an ongoing collaboration founded by artists Jina Valentine and Heather Hart that intends to fill holes in the documentation of contemporary art history. Our project is inspired by questions related to authorship: who writes the record? what is omitted from the record? Who has access to knowledge and its production determines what is included in the historical record. Authoring the dominant historical narrative means determining who is other and the terms by which they are treated as such. BLT is a critical gesture to disrupt that narrative. Our project mobilizes a democratic rewriting of contemporary art and cultural history, with the overall aim of filling gaps in and decentralizing authorship of the dominant historical record. 

Black Lunch Table began in 2005 at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Organized around literal and metaphorical lunch tables, BLT takes the school lunchroom phenomenon as its starting point. It has existed in numerous forms since then, and is presently comprised of a series of community roundtables, an online oral history archive, and Wikipedia project. 

As we researched models for the BLT archive and noted those artists omitted from the larger art historical archives, we wondered what artists had also been omitted from the world’s most widely referenced encyclopedia. We were surprised by how many there were. Our Wikipedia project redresses these omissions. The BLT Wikipedia project mobilizes a collective authoring of articles on the lives and works of Black artists. When we began our Wikipedia project in 2014, important figures such as Fred Moten, Hamza Walker, Meschac Gaba, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and Valerie Cassel Oliver were all without pages. Five years later, each has a page that began as a BLT target. We are inspired to continue this work as we note what artists, curators, and art historians remain under-documented on Wikipedia.

Excerpted from: The myth of the comprehensive historical archive, Jina Valentine w/ ed. Eliza Myrie & Heather Hart

Reagle, J., & Koerner, J. (Eds.). (2020). Wikipedia@20: Stories of an Incomplete Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess.