Archiving Out-of-Doors

The recently aired BBC programme The Secrets of Scott’s Hut took a wide-ranging look at the now almost legendary attempt by Captain Scott to reach the South Pole in 1911.

At its heart was the six-year project to preserve the remote wooden hut that was the base for the final stage of Scott’s unsuccessful expedition. Abandoned and almost untouched for 100 years, the building is an amazing time capsule (as this slide show produced by the BBC evidences).

Images © elisfanclub

In the 90 minute programme the story of Scott’s expedition is essentially told through the relics left behind by Scott and the other expedition members in the hut. The program makers’ focus on telling the story of the preservation work that has gone in to conserving the hut and all its contents, and thus the objects themselves, helps to move the “Scott Story” on from one of “heroic tragedy” to instead shedding more light on what life was actually like for Scott and his men and the kind of man Scott actually was.

As the geographer Caitlin DeSilvey has pointed out ‘potential awakenings’ reside in objects and materials that people gather around them and eventually discard in the course of their lives and that encounters with such discarded items can ‘propose empathetic connection with the people who made and handled them’.[1]

I attempted to follow this philosophy in my PhD research into taxidermy practice when I uncovered the entire contents of a taxidermist’s workshop gathering dust in a museum store.

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The tools and accoutrements, packed away in four large storage boxes, belonged to taxidermist John MacDonlad of Macpherson’s Sporting Stores, Inglis Street, Inverness. The store functioned as the supplier and taxidermist of choice to the Highland’s huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ fraternity for over eighty years, and thus played a central role in the town’s social and economic life. Falling out of business in the 1970s, MacDonald’s workaday material legacy was acquired by Inverness museum. These are the only remainders of the most famous taxidermy workshop in Inverness, a town which had been a centre for taxidermy for over a century through its enormous trade in sporting mementoes.

Discussion of my recuperation of this archive features in the following forthcoming publication:

Patchett, M. Foster, K. and Lorimer H. (2011) ‘The ‘Biogeographies’ of a Hollowed-Eyed Harrier’, in Alberti, S. (ed) The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, Virginia: University of Virginia Press.

In the meantime the following extract, taken from my PhD thesis, discusses the reconfiguration of archival practice in academic historiography. It outlines scholarship which questions the traditional sense of the archive as a static repository and introduces the idea that academics are involved in an active process of archiving (for a great example of this see Adeola Enigbokan’s

Archiving out-of-doors          

Central to Jacques Derrida’s account of the spectre is the observation that spirits from the past return (are conjured up or remembered) when people are of the view that the world around them is ‘out of joint’. This was the situation Walter Benjamin found himself in when living in Paris in the 1930’s and may explain, according to Herman Rapaport, the importance that phantasmagoria plays in his Arcades Project.

While impossible to categorise, Benjamin’s unfinished, though recently translated (Benjamin 1999), Arcades Project takes up and adapts the photomontage form which he so admired[1]  to develop a form of literary montage as his notes on the project suggest:

‘Method of this work: literary montage: I have nothing to say only to show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them’ (Benjamin quoted in Cavell 2000: 35).

Benjamin justified his use of such an artistic method by pointing to the presence of the ‘montage effect’ already in existence in the cities through ‘the ‘piling up’ and layering of neon and advertising which in turn become part of the architecture, and part of the visual experience of urbanism’ (McRobbie 1992: 159). Although this disorder would have not been immediately apparent to Parisian citizens who would have presumed Paris to be a coherent life-world, Benjamin’s gathering and loose groupings of pictures and texts ‘imperceptibly conjure up spectres from the past’ to unsettle any presumed coherency’ (Rapaport 2005: 420). By unearthing and assembling the detritus and refuse of Paris, the past as loss and degradation is not occluded but revealed through, the rag-picking work of cultural recycling[2].

Thus Benjamin, much in the same way as Derrida after him, uses the appearance of spectres to indicate that the socio-ontological order of the present is far more fragile than may first appear. Moreover, Benjamin’s montage method is also a mark of his outright rejection of the standard conventions of the empirical historian. Rapaport explains that Benjamin ‘understood that [the] historical phantasy of the empirical historian was characterised by a sense of ending or closure which, of course, served to objectify and reify history’, and thus the Arcades could be read as violating this ‘principle of closure or belonging by suggesting [that] the ‘end’ of what we call nineteenth-century Paris never quite arrives’ (Rapaport 2005: 430-1).

Through his constellations of texts and images Benjamin was presenting a non linear understanding of history, one which corresponded with the definition of history offered by his colleague Bolch: ‘a polyrhythmic and multi-spatial entity, with enough unmastered and yet by no means revealed corners’ (Bolch quoted in McRobbie 1992: 161). The task for Benjamin, then, was to ‘unravel the meanings of the discarded items lying in these dusty corners’ (Ibid).

For a new wave of creative historical researchers in geography foraging in dusty out-of-the-way corners has also become a compulsion. The dustier the better it seems, as the sweeping away of cobwebs seems to authenticate the labours involved in revealing and mining forgotten or repressed pasts. Yet for Lorimer dust is more than just an authenticating ingredient:

‘dust represents an invitation to speak up imaginatively for the archives existence as site as much as source, and for those social contexts orbiting steadfast consultation of documentary content. To do so, is to assert a version of archival hermeneutics extending beyond print culture and the written word, to include the context, encounters and events that constitute research practice. By implication, it is to seek out possible methodological means to evoke more of archival life: as a particular kind of place where complex subjectivities, and working relations, are created through the act of researching the past. And – pushing further still – it is to reconsider the limits and location of any set of materials determined as “archive”. Figured expansively, archives can exceed the darkened catacomb and civically-administered collection, and be sought out in physical landscapes, or still less likely sorts of locale.’ (Lorimer 2009).

Here Lorimer articulates the archive as an actual place exceeding traditional conceptions of civic repository and archiving as an active process that is not only about preservation but also the construction of pasts. Where experiences of the archive and archiving once only imbued the writing of historical research in geography in a trickle down fashion, now researchers are more willing explicitly to narrate archival practice (e.g. see Rose 2000, 2002; Yusoff 2007, Enigbokan 2010) and even go so far as to let those experiences lead and frame the narration and presentation of historical geographies. This in turn has encouraged some researchers to emerge from the shadows, to accept and evidence their presence as a creative and catalyzing element in the construction and creation of these pasts (e.g. Pearson and Shanks 2001; Jones 2005; DeSilvey 2006, 2007).

While Lorimer observes that ‘trust in empirics and the tangible is habituated among historical-cultural geographers’ (Lorimer 2006: 515), he explains that a growing number of researchers have been turned on to the possibilities of assemblage (i.e. the construction of archives) as motif and method. In an academic sense can be understood as ‘a creative form of cultural recycling that aims, wherever possible, to tread lightly and respectfully’ and that as such ‘[c]ultural by-products, junk, ephemera and leftovers become a treasure trove and staple resource’ to the researcher (Lorimer 2009).

The work of cultural recycling has offered a particular resource to researchers engaged in recuperating the pasts of place or site. For example, rag-picking the leftovers of an abandoned Montana Homestead offered Caitlin DeSilvey creative resources for activating a process of cultural remembrance (e.g. see DeSilvey 2006; 2007; for similar site specific historical research, see Cameron 1997; Lorimer and MacDonald 2002).

Drawing on Benjamin’s theory of historical constellations, DeSilvey assembled and juxtaposed redundant objects and discarded materials from the site in a bid to recuperate ‘obsolete networks of use and affinity’, whilst at the same time acknowledging that these temporary arrangements of deteriorating materials offered only fleeting glimpses of the homestead’s pasts (DeSilvey 2007: 401). In attempting to salvage meaning from waste things, the histories and connections offered by DeSilvey’s constellations are as indirect and incomplete as her sources: ‘intertwined histories of colonialism, racism, resource exploitation and gender politics are glimpsed only in shards of evidence’ (Ibid: 420).

Yet, by making do with the materials she had to hand she was able to uncover fragmentary histories which might have been obscured through more direct historical recovery methods, allowing her to present the complexity of the ‘entangled material memories’ of the homestead (Ibid). While DeSilvey acknowledges that bringing these histories into legibility requires ‘a process of manipulation, description and displacement’ on the part of the researcher, she argues that it is when ‘working in the grain of these things, [that] it may be possible to follow an ‘associative path of correspondences’ to a place where the past comes ‘alive – in all its bewildering ambiguity’ (DeSilvey 2007a: 414, quoting Gordon 1997)

Tim Edensor has similarly attempted to work within the grain of material things to express the elusive nature of the pasts that haunt sites of industrial ruin (see Edensor 2005a, 2005b, 2008). However, unlike DeSilvey, he made a conscious effort to resist recovering anything of the sites’ particular pasts. While bits of stories suggested themselves amidst the rubble and ruin, Edensor viewed this inarticulacy not as an impediment to historical reconstruction but rather as ‘an opportunity to construct narratives that are not contained by form or convention’ (Edensor 2005a 846).

Rather than attempting to reconstruct the deteriorating sites’ specific histories, then, Edensor sought to engage with their immediacy as affective material domains in order to carve out narratives that celebrated ‘the real impossibility of narrating and remembering the pasts of place’ (Ibid). While Edensor’s argument to resist historical reconstruction recognises the alterity of the past and the inherent difficulties associated with historical recovery, his ethic for confronting the past – as ‘tactile, imaginative and involuntary’ – could be read as an invitation to fabulate (Ibid: 847).

Yet Edensor invests his makeshift stories of ruin with critical potential, arguing that they help to refute that the past is wholly recoverable or ‘shot through with explanation’ (Benjamin 1973: 89). For Edensor, the ‘objects, spaces and traces found in ruins highlight the mystery and radical otherness of the past, a past which can haunt the fixed memories of place proffered by the powerful’[4] (Ibid: 846).

However, while there is something to be said for working with a sense of the irretrievability of past places and the lives of others in mind, it is also necessary to recognise the responsibilities on the part of the researchers to rehabilitate, carefully and faithfully, the historical remains left.

While certain academics have encouraged researchers to remain open to the twists and turns of archival and historic research, ‘to trace out the threads and follow their convolutions’ (Pile 2002: 116), by the same measure they qualify that there remains an academic commitment to piecing together evidence (in whatever form it takes) of past events so that histories and stories that may be obscured by more dominant forms of historical record remain to be told.

While forms of spectral writing can stay faithful to the spectrality of place and memory by testifying ‘to their taking-place in a slipping away and dislocation’, they can also be criticised for having a romantic fascination with the idea of loss and for the fact that these types of narratives are often themselves haunted by the spectre of fiction (Wylie 2007: 185). However, Maddern and Adey (2008: 293) argue that spectrality can also open our eyes to ‘a sense of obduracy and the persistence of presences that somehow remain’. For example although Edensor in his study of entropic industrial ruins shows how the city ‘endlessly moves on’, he also demonstrates, much like Benjamin, that it ‘leaves behind traces of its previous form, social life, inhabitants, politics, ways of thinking and being, and modes of experience’ (Edensor 2008: 315). Maddern and Adey therefore argue that spectro-geographies can help to question current trends in geography that seek to ‘enliven the world into immaterial practices and processes’ by remembering and highlighting ‘the still, the stubborn and the static geographies of obdurate elements, immobilities and fixities’ (Maddern and Adey 2008: 293).

NB. This extract is taken from my thesis and please cite in full:

Patchett, M. (2010) Putting Animals on Display: Geographies of Taxidermy Practice, Enlighten: University of Glasgow, pp. 242-246. 

[1] DeSilvey, ‘Salvage memory’, pp. 413, 417.

[2] Benjamin greatly admired montage techniques used in the arts and photography, particularly in the work of the photographer John Heartfield (for more on this see McRobbie 1992: 157).

[3] Intriguingly it was Benjamin’s ‘let the things speak’ formulation that Adorno found most to critique in Benjamin’s work. It raises huge epistemological questions, and indeed on challenging the poltics of what is an academic, e.g. can they be just collectors of rags and bones? Does the sum add up to more than the parts?

[4] By comparison there is a leftist tradition in geography of recovering the “real” ‘truths’ of past places, by rendering them ‘articulable’ through the folk-memories/oral testimonies of the powerless (e.g. see Kearns and Philo 1995 – Intro essay)

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