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Posts from the ‘Methodology’ Category

Some advice for people embarking on their PhD

By Helen Sunderland (@hl­_sunderland)

As I come to terms with the fact that I will soon no longer be able to call myself a first-year PhD student, I want to give some advice to those starting their doctoral research. Things I wish I knew when I started, some things I’ve learnt and others that I am still working on…

  1. Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start. This is completely normal. Moving to a new city and a new university, everything felt quite overwhelming at first. With post-induction information overload, it took a good couple of months for me to settle into a research routine. Read more

The Grand (Archival) Tour

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

One of the many advantages of being a historian who studies other countries is the ample opportunities for travel. My work focuses on artisans and material culture in sixteenth-century Verona, and I have therefore spent a lot of time in Veronese archives. However, I am also interested in how Renaissance culture travelled, especially through the Alps and into Germany. As part of a major fieldwork trip this year, I decided to follow the route of my research to Germany, visiting archives of interest along the way. In total, I visited thirteen archives in three different countries. During this time, I went from eating lunch outside in the piazzas of Italy, to walking through the snow in -14 degrees Celsius in Germany. No two archives were the same and I learnt a vast amount about research, travel, and independence. Here, I will share some of the most important things I learned. Read more

Reorienting the Home Front: Spatial History and Collective Memory

By Clemency Anderson

Does the past sometimes feel ‘far away’? Can we ever ‘go back’? And ‘where’ did we come from?  These questions demonstrate that we often conceptualise and speak about history in spatial terms. That is, we describe the past as a place. History has famously been called a ‘foreign country’. Perhaps the more ancient the history, the more time we need to spend in transit – interpreting, translating, contextualising – to get there.

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Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in British Prison Museums

By Dan Johnson, University of York (@Dan_Johnson19)

Prison museums are becoming a popular form of dark tourism around the world. In the last few decades, infamous prisons that have been in use since the beginning of incarceration as a form of punishment in the nineteenth century have begun to close their doors to make room for more modern prisons. In the UK, many former prison buildings have been saved and repurposed, rather than torn down. Some former prison buildings have even been transformed into boutique hotels and student accommodation. Although there has been a recent rise in the closures of Victorian prison buildings, there was a first wave of closures of some of the first British penitentiaries following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878. In the nineteenth century, many prisons were destroyed, however, some became tourist attractions. One of these prison buildings-turned-tourist sites is the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle. Read more

A cracked voice…

Writer Graham Palmer (@GP_writer) explains how he’s using music to explore the past in his exciting collaborative project, Cracked Voices.

Warning: my history is suspect. It is fake news. I am not a historian.

But I am fascinated in the way we are all complicit in fashioning stories, in interpreting our own lives and those of others (however distant). The narrative thread is well and truly woven into our being now that Time Team and Who do you think you are? have taught us that anyone can uncover truth with a trowel, a census or a curious mind. In an online world where the loudest, most outrageous opinion echoes and re-echoes over social media and blogs, everyone has become an expert (including me). History has never been so contemporary, nor so contentious (or so goes another myth that strokes our fragile 21st century egos). Read more

Solving the Historical Puzzle of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum

By Atlanta Rae Neudorf

Approaching the past as an historian is comparable to trying to solve a puzzle whose pieces are constantly changing shape. An element which momentarily appears to fit snugly in place comes suddenly into focus as glaringly wrong when new evidence comes to light. Whilst frustrating at times, these moments of clarity during the historical research process can also be wildly exciting and lead to new understandings of the past. Equally thrilling is the experience of applying different approaches to one’s research that results in two apparently incongruous pieces of the historical puzzle joining together perfectly. The process of piecing together the complex puzzle of historical problems involves searching for the hidden tensions and unspoken meanings inherent in all human activity. Read more

‘In fair Verona, where we lay our scene’ – my research reconnaissance mission

In the third of our series on research abroad, Zoe Farrell  (@zoeffarrell) scopes out Verona.

One of the most exciting yet intimidating elements of PhD research is the archival visit. This is perhaps particularly daunting for those of us venturing to foreign pastures and putting into practice hard-earned language skills. However, the rewards of navigating the maze of the foreign archive are substantial and the experience can be enriching in more ways than one. Read more

What’s in a map?

By Zoe Farrell  | @zoeffarrell

At first glance, a map is a simple entity. It is a tool through which towns and cities can be organised so that people can gain knowledge of places, roads, waterways and significant buildings. However, maps are often in fact complex objects of state building, propaganda and identity formation. J. B. Harley described cartography as ‘inherently rhetorical’ and it is exactly within this rhetoric that historians can search for clues to the past.

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Royal Palace or Hellish Temple? Using Architectural Style as a Source

By Atlanta R. Neudorf  //  arn26@cam.ac.uk

When one pictures the historian undertaking their archival research, it is common to conjure up an image of the scholar poring over sources of the written word: newspapers, letters, pamphlets, or book manuscripts. Few would imagine this dusty figure staring at a building. Read more

When Numbers Lie – Cautioning Quantitative Enthusiasm

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

There is an often repeated quote that is thrown around when speaking of “the past” and knowledge thereof in the kind of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for gods and kings – that those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it and, principally, repeat its mistakes. As such, there are many out there who claim to have learned the lessons of the past and are able to make suggestions about future courses of action based on them, or to prophesy the end times thanks to lessons learned from the Black Death or a basic understanding of world war two. However, as almost any historian will attest, very few two historical moments are directly applicable to one another – humans are just too variable a factor to control for. More problematic though is that the very material the historical record is based on is often far from infallible. The inherent biases of the sermon preachers, victor historians, and letter writers is well known and the requirement to read between the lines of sources is a well hashed subject. What is often less well understood is that number “facts” often lie in a similar fashion, or at the very least skew the truth through over simplification. Read more

The Wandering Historian: Reflections on a Year of Research Abroad

In the second of our posts on doing research abroad, Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith) traverses the United States.

Working on American history from a British university as I do, it was inevitable that at some point during my PhD research I was going to have to spend some time abroad. Courtesy of two Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded fellowships, first at the Huntington Library in California, and secondly at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, ‘some time’ rapidly became more-or-less an entire year. While I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of abandoning family, friends, and familiar settings to enter the political inferno that is the contemporary United States, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read more

The (not so) Secret Vatican Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers

In the first of our posts on doing research abroad, Fred Smith  (@Fred_E_Smith) explores the Secret Vatican Archives.

Aliens? Illuminati secrets? Devices that can see into the future? It seems that no conspiracy theory is too far-fetched for those who speculate what may be hidden within the vaults of the Archivum Segretum Vaticanum. [1] Indeed, the Vatican’s ‘secret’ archives are perhaps unique in their ability to fire the popular thirst for tales of mystery and machination – think, for instance, of their recent appearance in the 2009 film-adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which saw an ill-fated Tom Hanks trapped in a bullet-proof reading room, slowly being deprived of oxygen. Read more

Why We Need an Ethics of History Writing

By Dom Birch

The writing of history, we are told, is a political occupation—all historians have a political lens through which they work, or view the past. This viewpoint has led to historians convincing themselves that their work can almost always be justified in political terms. Justifying history as politics is doomed from the start: academic historians have very little influence on the political action and consciousness of the general population, and unavoidably political and intellectual purposes for writing history come into conflict. Historians inevitably need, at some point, to either change their politics or change their evidence. Read more

PhD Challenges: The Tangled Web of Historiography

By Eleanor Russell

Any historian endeavouring to research an area of history must investigate its historiography (the scholarship of previous historians); not only using their evidence and arguments but analysing, revising, and, where appropriate, challenging them. For historians, this process can be fraught with tension and doubt: which texts do I need to read? Who has already been debunked? What are the prevailing arguments and when and how did they develop? And – crucial for PhD students – who CAN I challenge? Read more

‘Where are the Dinosaurs?’: Reflections on Public History at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

by Tom Smith – @TomEtesonSmith

What connects the obscure lives of neurophysiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend and opera singer Madelena Delani? Are these people even real? Is there really an elaborate miniature engraving of the Crucifixion on that seemingly ordinary fruit stone? Are we supposed to take these heroic portraits of the dogs of the Soviet space programme seriously? Are bees really seen to be so integral to the life cycle within certain cultures that they must be told if a member of the family has married or died, and are invited (in writing) to funerals? And what on earth does that have to do with Alexander Fleming? Read more

‘Our story remains unwritten’: the ethics of writing histories across cultures

by Tom Smith

What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. Read more

Wanted: A More Complicated History of Belgium’s Congolese ‘Heart of Darkness’

by Eva Schalbroeck

Whenever I say that I study the history of Belgian imperialism in the Congo, most people confess to not knowing that Belgium had a colony. Others describe it as a particularly nasty and violent episode’. My explanations of ‘it’s far less black-and-white’ or ‘it’s complicated’ often confuse more than they illuminate. Popular media often associates Belgian imperialism with the ‘Red Rubber’ regime of the villainous and greedy King Leopold II. An article in New African calls him a ‘mass muderer’, who exploited the Congolese population to near extinction. Chopping off their limbs was ‘part of the “the butcher of the Congo’s” ‘repertoire’. According to an article in History Today ‘the Congo Free State evolved from a vanity possession into a slave plantation’. Leopold’s ‘playground’ and ‘hell’ operated with an insane logic’, allowing him to ‘cash in’ on rubber. It makes the bold claim that Leopold’s reign of terror anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism. Depicting him as the ‘African Hitler’, Leopold’s legacy is described as a Holocaust. Read more

Dying Declarations – Last Words in the hands of Historians

By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam

In May 1906 the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lay in his sick bed. That evening an old friend arrived from town to see the aged tragedian. Entering the room he greeted the nurse with “How is Mr Ibsen today?” “Oh”, she cheerily replied, “he’s doing much better.” At this Ibsen sat up incredulous in bed declaring “Tvert imod!” (tr. On the contrary!) upon which he fell back into his pillow unconscious, dying shortly thereafter.[1] For a writer whose characters rarely even cracked a smile, he managed to exit the world with one of the finest deathbed jokes in history. Read more

3D scans – bringing History to a wider audience.

by James Lloyd – @jtlloyd3

James is a PhD student at the University of Reading/Exeter in Classics. His thesis is entitled: ”Music and Ritual in Ancient Sparta: the lead votive figurines of the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia”

In recent years, there has been a flurry of new technologies emerging at a price which makes them (just about) affordable, notably 3D scanners and printers, and such technologies have attracted attention in the news of late for their employment in the digital recreation of artefacts and archaeological sites destroyed by IS. Indeed, 3D printing is a wonderful tool for bringing the past to life: Museum3D, for example, uses its 3D prints to engage museum visitors with low-vision and Alzheimer’s. However, as this post will show, 3D scans are just as important to public history. Read more