“The stories of ordinary people… are more powerful than anything politicians can say”: Affective archivists re-figure (the former) Yugoslavia through historical records

Csaba Szilagyi


This is the story of re-archiving historical records of the recent past with the aim of opening them up for contemporary scrutiny and interpretation, while placing traditional archival and curatorial practices in new context. The presentation is based on findings of the ongoing Yugoslavia Archive Project at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, which proposes to build a multi-access, dynamic and visually appealing online research platform based on the archive’s relevant (analog, digital, textual and audiovisual) records. The focus of our investigation is on the formative years of the post-Yugoslav, post-Dayton statehood (1991-1999), as represented in the broadcasts of state and opposition televisions from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia.

To “peel back the layers of intervention and interpretation,” we introduced a non-linear, comparative cataloging method, where catalogers from the former Yugoslavia, born before or during the examined historical period and having different social, educational and ethnic background, coded footage on the same, shorter time spans from all three countries simultaneously. Work was conducted in a self-reflexive manner: we observed and documented the catalogers’ behavior, the methodological, epistemic, and ethical questions connected to the archival intervention, and the pertinent curatorial answers and decisions. To allow for the creation of alternative narratives and reveal the multiplicity of meanings and voices, we referenced the microhistories of groups usually underrepresented or with limited means of self-expression in the records. We also produced an experimental documentary film, which reflects the transparency, the internal pace, the fragmented, often disrupted and deliberative-iterative nature of the project.

By using innovative re-cataloging and display, we liberated a disparate and dormant collection for archival, historical, social science, and media and communication research, as well as artistic reuse. At the same time, we revealed the nature of archival intervention by mapping the catalogers’ mindset and behavior while ‘translating’ moving images into structured text, and from the original language into English. Finally, we will publicly share the enhanced metadata for further research, hoping to also foster exchange with similar archives and private collectors in the region.


Csaba Szilagyi works at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives (Blinken OSA) at Central European University (CEU) and is responsible for its human rights collections, education and public programs. He co-teaches and coordinates the Archives, Evidence and Human Rights course and the Archives and Evidentiary Practices Specialization at the Department of Legal Studies and Department of History at CEU. He is also a content specialist for the Parallel Archive, a digital repository, personal scholarly workspace, and collaborative research environment developed by the Blinken OSA. Intermittently, he worked as a records manager and archives consultant for the Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch (1999-2000), and was the first curator of the Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research at Columbia University (2005-2006) in New York. He is currently interested in how technological advancement informs the collection, archiving and dissemination of human rights records, and in the representation and memorialization of recent mass atrocities in the archival space. Outside the archival world, Csaba translates fiction, and historical and political writings. He studied Hungarian literature, and holds an MA in American Studies.