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Posts from the ‘Methodology’ Category

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

Secrets in the Archives – Breaching the personal privacy of the long dead

By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam

The natural course of a life leaves an unintentional trail of breadcrumbs. Generally we never think twice of what we leave in the historical record whether it be major life moments (birth, marriage, change of address) or the little things like the discarded bus ticket or receipt for coffee that gets miraculously preserved. These fingerprints on the tapestry of history are the bread and butter of historians and while they aren’t meant for the view of others we don’t really mind their publicity. But we also leave behind more private records; diaries, love letters, disastrous teenage poetry – things that we’d rather no one else see either due to their embarrassing nature or simply because they are entirely private, they should belong only to us.
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Bringing archives back to life

By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam

Archives can be peculiar places. Each comes with its own personal variety of watchful archivists, identification requirements, seating regulations and occasionally (for those who’ve tried to enter the almost impenetrable fortress that is the Bodleian) oaths to swear. They sometimes seem like sacred historical spaces (Cathedral archives often literally are) where only the enlightened, the blessed, the chosen brothers and sisters of history speaking “shibboleth” may enter. They are, of course, anything but. Despite the grumbling academics trying to expel anyone but themselves from the British Library and presumably from anywhere they deem “their territory”, those documents labelled “Public Records” are, as the name suggests, publicly owned and publicly accessible. The 1958 Public Records Act even specifically requires the provision of ‘reasonable facilities … available to the public for inspecting and obtaining’ historical records.

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Putting down the books: when is research ‘complete’?

By Jess Hope

When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a history essay where my main primary source was an ‘eyewitness account’ of the events I was describing. It was detailed and colourful, full of vivid descriptions, quotes and recollections. It was great fun both to read and to write about.

It was only later that I discovered that this particular ‘eyewitness’ may not have actually, exactly….well, been there. Read more

When is Research Worth it?

By Matthew Tibble

Matthew is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching religious counsel during the mid-Tudor period.

I have been studying history for the better part of four years, yet it was only recently that I managed to fulfil the archetypal ambition of making an original ‘discovery’. Like so much of modern historical research, it began by persistently trawling through online resources, flicking through digital facsimile images of countless early printed works, and noticing a small peculiarity. Laurence Saunders, a clergyman who died on 8th February 1555, had purportedly written a book that described in great detail the trial of two Protestant martyrs, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, who had later been burned at the stake by Mary I. The trial is known to have taken place in October, eight months after Laurence Saunders’ death, inherently undermining his contention that, ‘I was there presente at the doing of thys…and heard al for the most part with mine eares’.[1] Read more