The National Archives in Seattle opened in 1951 and maintains and provides access to permanent records created by Federal agencies and courts for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington in its 56,000 cubic foot nondescript warehouse in the Hawthorn Hills neighborhood of Seattle. Researchers, historians, government officials, and the general public consult the facility for a wide array of reasons including genealogy, tribal records research, land use, geographic study, and citizen engagement in federal activities.

In spite of the trove of information the archives represent for our region, in January 2020 the Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced Seattle’s archive had been selected for closure and sale, essentially telling the public the land itself was more valuable to the federal government than the documents housed there. This decision was undertaken without consulting the public or any local stakeholders and resulted in significant pushback and a 14-month long campaign by Northwest tribes, senators from Washington and Alaska, 25 congressional delegates from Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho, and the Washington state Attorney General. Thanks to their advocacy, in April 2021 the Biden administration rescinded the plan.

This skirmish reveals the archive’s tenuous state and highlights the access challenges it already faces. Though the archive will remain, repairing the building or constructing a new one will be a costly and drawn-out process that will certainly impact the public’s ability to engage with its holdings. Those holdings already bear the hallmarks of bureaucratic decisions on site and place—much of the available digitized material comes from the Alaska Digitization Project, an initiative undertaken when NARA closed its Anchorage facility in 2014 and transferred its holdings to Seattle.

Our interactive installation uses mixed reality to create a ghosted interface between the building’s stored records and the public. Bringing documents from the inside out, it changes the scale of access and intervenes into the power dynamics of the space. By relying on digitized documents, the project also highlights the partiality of that process, which reflects the whims, values, and projects of those who have shaped the archive’s architecture.

Doing so, we reflect on the role of the archives and their relationship to the building, its site and the region while also investigating the troubled relationship between “original” and “digital facsimile” when it comes to archival documents. Juxtaposing materiality with the intangible, we create a vehicle for interrogating context, lineage, identity, presence, access, permanence, and ephemerality. We examine how the relocation of archival material affects a sense of regional identity and how that identity shifts through the recontextualization of such materials.