By Max Long
My first encounter with moving image archives took place in a windowless room in the basement of a building in London. I was there to view a selection of natural history films. I had watched similar films online, but here I could load, spool, and wind up the films myself. Films are the principal source in my research, but prior to my PhD, I had little experience with the medium. Here I was left alone with two towering piles of 35mm and 16mm films, and an unexpected lesson in the materiality of film technology.
By Savannah Pine (@savannah_pine)
El Paso, Texas (my hometown) features in the news frequently nowadays because of the migrant crisis and the administration’s desire to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico. The border, which lies along the Rio Grande, separates a large urban area into two cities: El Paso in the US and Juárez, in Mexico. But people have long travelled across the border, as this early-twentieth-century postcard demonstrates: a streetcar rides the El Paso & Juárez Streetcar Line from downtown Juárez, over the international bridge, and down El Paso Street to downtown El Paso. My professor sent me this postcard last year as a graduation gift and I decided to find the modern version. However, it was more difficult than I thought without institutional access to research resources. This is the story of how I did unconventional historical research.
By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)
Have you ever left an online review after dining at a café or staying in a hotel? What about after a visiting a museum or a local heritage site? You probably left your comment for the benefit of future visitors or to get the attention of management, but that review may have had unintended consequences. Although you not have known it, your opinions could be creating valuable digital sources for the historians of tomorrow.[i]
It might feel like websites such as Google Reviews, TripAdvisor and HotelWorld are a pretty new phenomenon. Certainly, online reviews are a product of the twenty-first century. But as consumers, we humans have been recording our opinions on recreational experiences for a long time. The best historic example of this is the visitor’s (or guest) book. Typically identified by its leather cover, heavy pages, or dusty appearance, this thick tome sitting in the corner of a museum room or end of the gallery corridor should not be overlooked. Though some visitor’s books may only elicit a signature, akin to ‘X was here,’ most are filled with colourful and reflective feedback. Even the briefest of autographs can open intriguing avenues of research, whether exploring the nature of the ink to the style of the handwriting.[ii]
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories. Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies. Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting. As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.
PhD students Eleanor Barnett (@eleanorrbarnett), Trina Moseley (@trina_moseley) and Lewis Defrates (@lewisdefrates) talk to Doing History in Public about their experiences running sessions with primary school children for the Faculty of History’s History for Schools programme.
What was your History for Schools session about and how does it link with your research?
Eleanor and Trina: Our History for Schools session was called ‘Hungry Historians: A Delicious and Disgusting Journey Through Time’. We used our combined research interests in early modern (Italian and English) and modern (British) food history to teach about how flavours and ingredients have changed over time. We tried to have as many hands-on activities as possible, including opportunities to taste historical sweets and cakes! You can find out more about our session on the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group blog.
Lewis: My session was on the first visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to London in 1887. More broadly, my research concerns the movement of a variety of cultural actors and performers from the United States to Britain between 1880 and 1914 and differing conceptions of ‘Americanness’ that travel and performance enabled these figures to formulate, but this was a great chance to focus on one particular instance of travel and explore what it would have shown British audiences about ‘America’ in the late nineteenth century.
By Dr Marta Musso (@martamusso)
For Historical Archives, investing in digitisation is an extremely expensive, time consuming, and complex endeavour. It is well worth the effort, but it is fundamental to implement all the opportunities that digital technologies offer to archives. Since the beginning of the millennium, archives and cultural heritage institutions have started to reflect on the new challenges and opportunities brought about by the digital age. The guidelines created in 2002 by the International Council of Archives indicated full digitisation and online availability of archival material as the main objective for archives in the digital age. Now, even in a utopic world where archives had infinite budget and resources, this is a very long-term and ambitious goal – we are talking about millions, trillions of paper and analogue documents that need to be digitised and indexed online. At the same time, opening its heritage to everyone in the world is the goal of any archive; and for national and public archives it is part of their mandate.
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…
- 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
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
As historians, we are often used to thinking about an archive as a fixed set of documents kept in a static physical location. An appropriate historical source is often considered as such only if it can be verified by ‘real’ material from a ‘real’ archive. Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database. For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites. World historians, and specifically those working on the social and cultural history of empire, often contend with the colonial archive and are required to read along the archival grain, as Ann Stoler puts it. One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.
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
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.
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
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 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
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.
By Atlanta R. Neudorf // email@example.com
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
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
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
In the first of our posts on doing research abroad, Fred 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.  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