The archive is a particularly unglamorous thing. My own archival research has mostly been spent in online searches using specialised Victorian period resources and databases as a result of the careful curation of electronic sources that have been scanned and uploaded onto the web. It is not very interesting talking about how I have found most of my primary sources by inputting certain key words into search engines and using computers (mostly at home and sometimes wearing my pyjamas).
However, archival research is presented as much more glamorous in novels, much sexier. Indeed, there are a number of scholars who agree that there is a “romance of the archive” in modern fiction. This romance has been outlined in detail in “Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction” by Suzanne Keen (University of Toronto Press, 2003). The quest for truth in novels such as A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” is seemingly fulfilled while the characters of those chasing truth in historical archives is fundamentally transformed by and in the route to knowledge. The archival research in the novel is also woven into an exciting adventure of love.
In my own research, I have never encountered a young and attractive member of the opposite sex, much less spoken to one for any prolonged period of time. In fact, the people that I have encountered tend to be much older than me and regard the youthful looking British Asian man in front of them with an unqualified mixture of surprise and suspicion. Such is the difference between reality and fiction. As an aside, one notes that in this degraded society that we live in, one of the countless tragedies is that the archive is now present in our romances. The dating site user knows that one has to trudge through archives in order to connect one heart to another, a servile form of office work in the field of self match-making. Such is the meretricious age one lives in.
I want to share a real research story from my own experience as a PhD student. There is no sexiness. There is no final discovery, no fulfilment. There is no alluring member of the opposite sex involved. I will recount “The Case of the Missing Picture”. I will then muse over the meaning of the story in terms of current Victorian period research and interdisciplinary research in the larger context of the type of academia I am a part of at the present moment. In sharing this research story, I am pointing to a hidden aspect of research which those who see the finalised printed page do not know of. My research story is just one of the many things that I have lived through and which are never apparent on the page but which form the character and lived experience of historical research in the humanities.
I will first outline the conditions of my research which are connected to my own experiences as a student. I have formally studied law and English Literature at University. While my law degree involved outside options such as an introduction to philosophy and things like legal history and legal and political anthropology, and while I studied some art scholarship amongst the assorted odds and ends in a humanities degree, I have never formally studied art or art history. This means that my knowledge of art institutions is one of almost total ignorance. In addition to this, my research is not concentrated on nor does it stem from the place of art. I am still a law and English literature student. My research strategy to find the missing picture, as an ignorant outsider, therefore assumed a dominant strategy – asking people who supposedly knew more than me about the matter for help. I was an academic damsel in distress. I therefore wrote letters to a number of people, or consulted them on the telephone as they were supposedly in the know. This strategy meant that I didn’t have to learn lots of irrelevant art world information instead of concentrating on my own limited area of research.
The painting that I have been looking for is by Frederick Daniel Hardy. It is called “Reading the Will”. I am interested in it because I am studying the theme of reading throughout the works of the artist and how they are related to vision. I am contrasting the picture with another one which I have had access to and which I went to see on the sole research trip of my research journey, a trip that was generously funded by the University’s research budget since I made a research bid for it. I was unable at first to find anything about “Reading the Will” myself. I had only been able to locate a black and white engraving of the picture in an article about the artist, Frederick Daniel Hardy, in addition to a very small image of the painting on the internet. The engraving was located by consulting the Victorian period databases online via the usual search with keywords while the small image of the picture was found using a basic Google search.
I desperately wanted to see the painting in a higher resolution image or in the flesh. I was unable to make out certain telling details in the picture which would have contributed substantially to my analysis of the piece. My first step was to contact “The Fine Art Photo Gallery” which hosted the image online. I sent a few emails which went unanswered and made a few phone calls. However, in my last phone call, to chase up an unanswered email, I was told that the owners of the business were retired and therefore could not help me to find out where the online photograph of the painting had been taken. My best lead turned out to be a dead-end. It was awesomely frustrating to know that someone knew where the painting was and had actually seen it up close, but would never share that vital piece of information with me. I can tell you that hearing the bored woman’s voice on the phone line cutting me off from the source of the picture left a particularly sour taste in my mouth.
My next step was more old-fashioned and depended on the system of scholarship outside of the online arena. I contacted the publishers of an author who has just written a new book on the Hardy family of artists. He was a member of the family himself, a direct descendent of the man who drew the picture I was interested in. I was excited to receive the email from the author and opened it expectantly. The author shared a few details with me, but unfortunately, he was also unable to help me get access to a larger image where I could see the details. I was very grateful for his assistance nonetheless and wrote back to thank him as he had very generously given me his time and attention. He seemed like a nice person.
The next step was the usual phoning and letter writing which begged for assistance in the matter. The target was an art gallery which housed quite a few of the artist’s works. I got the email just a few days ago. The lovely lady told me that she had the institution’s file on F. D. Hardy, and the publication they produced for their 2010 exhibition on the Cranbrook Colony (the collective that the artist was part of). Unfortunately, the helpful woman hadn’t managed to find anything about ‘Reading the Will’. She commented that this was quite puzzling as her institution had at least some information about most of his works. In closing, the woman suggested contacting the Cranbrook Museum as they may be able to help. I have not yet contacted the latter institution but am saving that last recourse for after the current holidays.
It can be seen that the system I relied on in chasing the painting was the system of deference. I bowed down to greater authorities than myself and to the art world institution, as well as the kinship ties of the artist, to attempt to find the picture. I assumed that someone in the know would be able to point me, the ignorant outsider, to the hidden treasure. So far, I have been wrong in my assumptions. My acting out of the part of the damsel in distress has not yielded the result which I hoped for.
I now wish to reflect upon what my research story tells about the current state of humanities research and the reality of being an interdisciplinary researcher. I will consider how much humanities research depends on luck as well as a general infrastructure of research that has been laid down in the preceding generation. I will then outline why people choose to abandon interdisciplinary research in favour of the disciplines, as interdisciplinary research calls for the skills of a generalist as well as those of a specialist, skills which the current emphasis on publishing specialist papers has caused to fall into abeyance.
Firstly, then, I note how I, the damsel in distress, the interdisciplinary researcher and the ignorant outsider to art and the art institution, have to depend totally upon luck and the built infrastructure of academia to find Victorian period paintings. I found the other painting by the artist because someone else had talked about it in relation to vision. I was able to get an image off the internet via Google search because someone had uploaded it. I was able to find out what museum housed the painting since an academic had properly referenced the painting in a book. I was therefore able to see it up close. It was luck and the fact that people before me had studied the painting that enabled me to encounter it directly.
When I could not find the other painting, luck went against me. No-one had discussed the painting in academia save from brief and unilluminating notes I found online. No-one had uploaded a high resolution image on the internet. The black and white engraving of the painting that I found was purely by chance and cushioned in a general article on the complete works of the artist. The academic infrastructure had not been built around this particular painting.
What was missing from this academic infrastructure? Why wasn’t there a complete online library of all Victorian paintings? Why wasn’t there a complete catalogue of the works of Frederick Daniel Hardy? Why hadn’t the artist been studied in detail? He wasn’t considered important, it was evident. How many minor artists like Hardy were there who were confined to the graveyard of history? Why weren’t they considered important? Why, in short, was I made to feel the lack of the missing picture so keenly? The arbitrariness of the position was what was so maddening. Was it a result of no funding? Was it a result of seeing artists only in terms of movements? I speculated. Was it the selfishness of academia that was involved? That one is only judged on one’s publications rather than the contribution made to building an academic infrastructure that was open to outsiders such as myself?
My thoughts then turned to the position of the interdisciplinary researcher such as myself, someone who juggles notions of reading with vision, and notions of law with photography. It is a tragic fate to be an interdisciplinary researcher. One has to turn to others within the disciplines that never really understand what one is saying or what one is getting at. Each one of the disciplines looks at the research project of the interdisciplinary researcher and recognises an outsider. Each time, one is made aware of one’s position on the outside. The law people know that I am not a lawyer. The photography people know that I am not a photographer. The English literature people know that I am not an English literature person. The art people know that I am outside of the art institution. To be interdisciplinary is truly to be alone.
The interdisciplinary researcher also has to have the skill set of the generalist even while he or she has to have the skill set of a specialist, to confine themselves to the particular task that they have set themselves. One has to know a little bit about everything, one has to generalise and find overall connections that allow things to be grasped. In the game where one finds words on the map, one has to look for the ones which span countries and continents, as well as paying attention to the local details. It is this dual requirement and dual vision, I suggest, in addition to the total loneliness of the interdisciplinary researcher, which means that researchers generally tend to stick to the disciplines and think in terms of the mindset which sees entities as discrete things rather than nodes tied up within networks, as flies trapped in discursive webs.
What is the conclusion of this research story? There is another phone call to make, there are perhaps future letters to write. The analysis of the missing painting sits in the draft of a chapter of my thesis, a contrast to the other painting of the artist. Nothing has been found, the telling detail is still missing from my viewing of a reading. I, the interdisciplinary researcher am none the wiser. Instead, I feel frustration and despair of ever achieving my object of a perfect viewing, free from hindrance. I despair of meeting the academic authority that knows more than me, of seeing a complete catalogue of the paintings of Frederick Daniel Hardy or being able to view, in theory, any work of Victorian art. The contemporary state of the academic infrastructure, for whatever reason, has defeated me. In the future, perhaps, technology and scholarship will be advanced to such a state that my research story will be a relic of the past and this is what one hopes for. Perhaps sufficient funding will be allocated to research in the humanities and one will not have to depend on luck and the arbitrary preoccupations of other scholars who happened to have preceded one in terms of time. Such is the hope of the interdisciplinary researcher. One wonders how many research stories like mine there are in this world of ours and why they are the way that they are, outside of “the romance of the archive”.