Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Visualizing Evidence

Common-Place is a leading electronic journal on early American history. It’s current issue,(volume 7, number 3, April 2007), focusing on graphics in nineteenth-century America, will be of interest to those interested in archival sources. As the editors (Georgia B. Barnhill, Joshua Brown, and Ian Gordon) describe the topic, “The vast effusion of graphic materials confronting the nineteenth-century American included an ever-increasing range of illustrated periodicals; the blossoming of the political cartoon; individual decorative, portrait, comic, and genre prints; trade cards; greeting cards; sheet music covers; theater and campaign posters; and overbearing billboards.” With a variety of essays on a range of topics, the editors argue that embedded in the seemingly regimented lines, archaic visual codes, and quaint pictorial conventions of nineteenth-century graphics is a universe of actions and ideas that the realm of text often fails to capture. In their explorations of that universe, historians have begun uncovering the myriad ways popular graphics engaged with, embodied, and shaped the tumultuous culture, society, politics, and economy of nineteenth-century America.” Archives are full of visual materials as well as textual records, and the archives are also full of professionals, both in front of and behind the reference desk, seeking to read both the visual and the textual evidence of the past.

The issue includes essays on the paradox of the rising number of women assuming professional careers but not being represented in the illustrated press in these new roles, postbellum caricature about women suffrage, the first African-American cartoonist, and so forth. Of particular interest for those with specific interests in archives is Ellen Gruber Garvey’s “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Appropriation: Scrapbooks and Extra-Illustration”; Katherine Martinez’s “The Dickinsons of Amherst Collect: Pictures and Their Meanings in a Victorian Home”; and Wendy Wick Reaves’s “’Reading’ Portrait Prints: New Ways of Seeing Old Faces.” Martinez, for example, pulls together a lot of information about the use and placement of illustrations, writing “The Evergreens [the Dickinson homestead] is an excellent site for studying the choices involved in picture collecting and display. There are approximately thirty paintings, fifty prints, several large framed photographs and photomechanical reproductions of artwork acquired by the Dickinsons. Beginning in the 1850s, tastemakers encouraged homeowners to create highly personal, eclectic arrangements of household furnishings, decorative artifacts, and visual images as a manifestation of refinement and personal taste. Such eclectic arrangements would give owners the freedom to effectively personalize art, by assembling it in such a way that it would evoke particularly meaningful family lore or memories of an inspiring trip abroad. This Victorian aesthetic also emphasized the value of owners' distinct connection to individual works, suggesting that the narrative of owners' relation to the work was more important than its particular aesthetic qualities.” Reaves asks some interesting questions about how earlier generations viewed portraits, such as “How can we know what an individual print communicated to its audience at the time? With paltry written evidence about reception or audience reaction, can we responsibly use these prints as historic documents?” She argues that it is crucial to start by understanding the physical object and its medium, and then questioning how, why, and by whom it is made and disseminated. “Conventions of the genre” and “looking at a whole body of contemporary imagery and seeing how such elements are applied and repeated can help us deduce meaning. That is, when considered collectively rather than individually, prints may actually reveal more of a message.”

I have always admired the quality of the contributions to this e-journal, the excellent design, and the use of illustrations in its production. This particular issue, amply illustrated, demonstrates why it is a publication needing to be checked by anyone interested in reading archives and understanding the use of historical evidence.