• Peripheral Histories

A file, an archivist, and a metal bookcase

Emanuela Grama


“I don’t remember having seen this file before,” the archivist told me when he returned from the stacks to the reading room. He had a surprised look on his face, but also a twinkle in his eyes when he said: “I was part of the team who reorganized the entire archive of the Institute in the early 1990s. I thought that I had gotten my hands on all of the files, but I guess there are still some that I did not see.”



FIGURE 1: The front cover of the first file about the Old Court (1962-1970). File no. 2159 in the archive of the National Institute of Patrimony. Photo by Emanuela Grama, courtesy of the National Institute of Patrimony, Bucharest, Romania.


This conversation took place in early spring 2007, in a small room of the National Institute for Historic Monuments. (after 2009, the National Institute of Patrimony). During that year, I was a fellow at an institute in Bucharest, with a project that included research about the neighborhood known as the Old Town. This neighborhood has had a convoluted history in a city whose development has been rather haphazard, emerging at the intersection of corruption and chance, as ambitious urban visions would end up being challenged and tamed by opposite political and personal agendas throughout the 19th and 20th century. The Old Town emerged as a commercial hub in the 18th century, forming around an abandoned medieval palace. The palace, known as the Old Court, caught fire and was subsequently abandoned, and the site became parceled off to various merchants who used some of the palace’s ruined walls as the foundation on which they built their own houses.


I began my research with a question: how did this architecturally and socially heterogenous place manage to remain standing in the midst of the radical demolition that the communist authorities launched during the 1980s? During that time, hundreds of bulldozers entered other neighborhoods abutting the Old Town and leveled down many of the 19th century houses to make room for what Nicolae Ceausescu, the last leader of communist Romania, envisioned as Bucharest’s new civic center.


The file that the archivist shared with me offered some answers, but these answers were far from what I initially believed: that the Old Town had survived simply by chance. It turned out that the story was more complicated than that. The first letter that I saw when I opened the file turned out to be quite a read. It was an official letter dated in late 1962 and addressed to an official body of the communist state. But its tone was openly accusatory, and the accusations were directed at some key players in the state apparatus; more specifically, the Minister of Architecture and Constructions and Bucharest’s chief-architect. The letter was anonymous, but a short note attached to the letter signaled that it might have been sent by a group of archaeologists working for the City Museum of Bucharest. The letter writers were incensed about the architects’ imminent plans to expand Unirii square, a large public square abutting the Old Town.

FIGURE 2: The winning project of the 1959 competition for the remodeling of Unirii Square. The red square marks the location of the Old Court. Arhitectura, 62, no. 1 (1960): 15. Photo by Sarah Andrews, reproduced with the permission the author and Arhitectura.


In their view, such an intervention would have led to the erasure of historic sites that they deemed to be pivotal for Romania’s national history, including the ruins of the Old Court (at that time, still underground). This letter was just the beginning of an extensive correspondence, in which these archaeologists kept pressing the state to stop any plans for urban renewal near the Old Town. What they wanted most was to be allowed - and funded - to keep digging, in the hope that they would unearth the foundation of the Old Court - and that this foundation be eventually used to rebuild the entire palace into an open-air museum. In the end, they did succeed, but only due to a combination of chance, pragmatism, and a shifts from Stalnism to an increasing interest of the Romanian communists in nationalist ideology.



FIGURE 3: The model of the ruins of the Princely Palace. 1967-1968. Arhitectura, 113, no.4 (1968): 27. Photo by Răzvan Voinea, reproduced with the permission the author and Arhitectura.


As I argue in my book, this story could be read as a modern take on David fighting Goliath. It reveals that some state institutions had different, sometimes even opposite agendas and visions about the relationship between history-(re)writing and state-making, and through this lens, the communist state appears as a much more convoluted and contradictory entity than the perfectly centralized and smoothly functioning machine that the communist officials wanted to portray. In fact, this fight between archaeologists and architects shows that resources and political visibility under communism came about in more haphazard ways than we would imagine.



FIGURE 4: Excerpt from directives by Nicolae Ceausescu following his visit of the Old Town in January and February 1987. The directives note that “some of the buildings must be repaired, restored, or reconstructed,” and that “open areas must filled with new buildings that matched the style and character of the neighborhood.” File no. 2580/1988, in the archive of the National Institute of Patrimony. Photo by Emanuela Grama, courtesy of the National Institute of Patrimony, Bucharest, Romania.


There was a strange parallel between the ways in which the Old Court came back to life via the archaeologists’ stubborn determination, and the ways in which this story became the starting point of my own book. As I learned from archivist Iuliu Șerban during our first conversation, the fact that I found this file in the first place was also the result of chance and another type of stubbornness. He shared with me a story about how the archive of the Institute had serendipitously survived, despite the dissolution of the Institute in December 1977.[1] At that time, the central authorities decided to drastically reduce the number of employees and projects funded by the Institute. Most of its key employees and experts were dispersed to other state institutions, while the funding for the preservation of historic monuments was drastically cut. They were also asked to move out of the building of the Institute and take the Institute’s archive with them.


It was under these circumstances that a group of employees who wanted to preserve the Institute’s archive sought out a temporary solution: they decided to take it out of the Institute and transport it and deposit it in one of the many rooms in the basement of a large building on the outskirts of Bucharest. The House of Spark was a monumental construction, built in the socialist realist style in the mid 1950s in order to house the staff and newsrooms of all of major presses and newspapers, including their Party daily, Scînteia/The Spark. As the archivist told me, when the Institute’s (former) employees brought the archive to that basement, they just wanted to postpone its destruction, having lost any hope that the communist authorities would change their minds about the dissolution of the Institute. After they deposited the hundreds of files of documents in that room, they shut the door behind them, thinking that these documents would slowly disappear. But then a very heavy metal bookcase inside the room fell on the door and thus blocked the entrance. No one bothered enough to break into the room for more than a decade. The abandoned archive was thus preserved intact.


FIGURE 5: Map of the Old Town (2020). © OpenStreetMap contributors. The data is available under the Open Database License.


The communist regime ended in 1989, and in that atmosphere of change and hope, some of the former employees of the Institute reestablished it under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture. A few months later, a group of them, including archivist Iuliu Șerban, went to that basement to inquire about the fate of that archive. They began the long process of picking up and dusting off the files on the floor, assessing and cataloguing them; in short, transforming that mountain of disparate files into an orderly system of information. Mr. Șerban was the mastermind behind the remaking of the archive. Before he handed me that file, he observed that I was the first researcher to look at it. Years later, I remembered that afternoon and realized that my first book would not have existed had not been for a metal bookshelf, a blocked door, and a brave archivist.



FIGURE 6: A section of the open air museum of the Old Court, Bucharest. Photo by Emanuela Grama, May 2016.

[1] At the time of my research, Mr. Șerban was the only archivist and the only one responsible with the Institute’s archive. I did not have the chance to ask other employees of the Institute about the story that Mr. Serban shared with me. Given his status and the respect that the others showed him, I have chosen to believe that what he told me was true.


Emanuela Grama is an associate professor of anthropology and history in the department of History at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA. Her first book, Socialist Heritage: The Politics of Past and Place in Romania (Indiana University Press, 2019) received the 2020 Ed Hewett prize, offered by the Association for the Slavic, Eastern Europe, and Eurasian Studies for “an outstanding monograph on the political economy” of the region. You can find her on Twitter at @emanuela_grama, and you can read her articles and other writings on her website: emanuelagrama.com.

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