Melissa L. Gustin is 2018-2020 Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Henry Moore Foundation, working on a project titled “Reimagining Neoclassicism: Camp Reconsiderations of the Encountered Object.” She completed her PhD at the University of York in July 2018 on American neoclassical sculpture and the impacts of the Roman visual environment, classical receptions, and critical theory. Her new project will be looking at European and American neoclassicism in the long nineteenth century, then and now. She can be found tweeting about her research, travel, conferences, and coffee @Hosmeriana.
This blog post’s extremely visual title comes from Tim Barringer’s keynote at Durham’s Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies conference, “The Nineteenth-Century Archive as a Discourse of Power”. Professor Barringer was speaking about Albertopolis, the complex that would become the South Kensington Museum and now the Victoria and Albert Museum, as an intellectual project designed to turn the working classes of London and the United Kingdom into productive aesthetic cogs in a machine of progress and capitalist productivity. Ruskin, we’re told, hated the South Kensington system and all it stood for, and would perhaps have liked the metaphor.
The conference, organised by Dr Rachel Bryant Davies and Dr Erin Johnson-Williams, both at Durham, explored “the cultural imperative to inscribe and classify data…at the heart of the growth of archiving in the nineteenth-century world,” and highlighted “the archive as a reflexive and mediated system of knowledge.” Through an interdisciplinary group of scholars the conference dealt with potentially — and explicitly — sensitive subjects within both the historical archive and within contemporary scholarship. Delegates were also treated to object handling at the Oriental Museum, viewing objects deemed not suitable for display, whether that was because they were too dull — a tiny box of sand — or too objectionable or difficult to contextualise — such as figurines of people being tortured that were produced in colonised China for British audiences. It was highly effective to hear about the discussions with communities and experts from the museum staff, underscoring the contemporary sensitivities and issues that is still impacted by our nineteenth-century research subjects.
Rather than just listing all of the excellent papers and panels, I want to highlight some discussions I found especially productive for my own work as I begin digging into highly-sensitive subjects such as race, slavery, and sexual assault in art. While my subject, Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) was herself never an enslaved person, she was a Black-Ojibwe woman who was likely a victim of sexual assault, her work frequently dealt with enslaved persons as subjects, and her race was a major factor in her career. As a White woman, I am very aware that I possess blind spots caused by my privilege, my temporal and cultural differences, and the risk of inadvertently enacting prejudices and historical violences against not only Lewis but also contemporary people of colour. Dr Sadiah Qureshi’s paper, “‘The death of every old man brings with it the loss of knowledge never to be replaced’: Re-purposing the Anthropological Archive,” raised vital questions about the Western scholarly desire to spectate and spectacularize their subjects, even when that spectatorship involved images of people that had been obtained under duress.
Dr Qureshi’s paper demonstrated that we absolutely do not need to reenact violence, othering, and spectacularization against our subjects, and that morally, we have a responsibility to consider the circumstances under which images and archives were formed. In my own work, this means I am actively considering why I have previously felt it necessary to show images of women artists, especially Lewis, when talking about work that has nothing to do with their physical appearance. Though Lewis was an active participant in the process by which her image was taken and distributed as a carte de visite unlike the subjects in Dr Qureshi’s colonial archive, I am aware that by including images of her when I would not, by comparison, include images of male artists, has the effect of objectifying her. It suggests that her body should be analysed alongside her work, rather than emphasising her intellectual and artistic authority.
Dr Qureshi’s paper was followed by Dr Deana Heath, speaking on “Sexual Violence and the Colonial Archive.” This was equally relevant to my own work, as Lewis was likely the victim of sexual assault during her time at college. I openly admit to struggling over whether or not to include this within the discussion of her work, as often, it seems voyeuristic and perverse to speculate — at great historical and cultural distance — about the exact nature of her violent experiences. Dr Heath spoke about the sexual violence rendered visible or invisible in the colonial archive, and the responsibility of scholars in this area to our subjects. We must as scholars be conscious of the processes by which we ‘give voice’ to or make visible the traumatic or violent lived experiences of people in the archive. While recognizing, acknowledging, and studying these experiences is necessary to better understand the historical events and social conditions under which, in Dr Heath’s paper, colonial subjects lived, we must be careful to avoid treating these pruriently. The lived experiences of others are not our torture-porn, and this reminded me to be extremely careful about not only the content but the tone of any discussions about sexual violence in the historical record.
But twasn’t all doom and gloom, with a light note being struck by Dr Jennifer Ingleheart, telling us about curating the ‘Story of Phi’ at the Bodleian, which brought together books from the Bod’s collection of books historically deemed inappropriate for general circulation due to their subject matter. These books, stamped with the symbol Phi, included Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Madonna’s Sex and Monty Python’s The Brand New Monty Python Bok (which has a bare bum on the cover). Dr Ingleheart explained the rationale behind the exhibition, as well as the complexities of putting on a free public exhibition of sensitive, often sexually explicit material in a space like the Bodleian. This mirrored quite nicely a paper from the first session by Thomas Couldridge (1st year PhD, Classics, Durham) on the controversy around J.W. Waterhouse’s Hylas last year. On the one hand, the removal from show of a painting not generally viewed as obscene rapidly started a discussion about how we handle historical art in the present, while on the other, The Story of Phi made visible (behind some demure barriers) what had previously been less accessible.
So that’s all a bit depressing for a Monday morning blog post, but these are among some of the hugely important questions raised by the two days of panels. To return to the sausage metaphor, if only to justify my use of the quote as a title — the conference was not only interested in how we as contemporary scholars handle our sensitive research subjects, but how the sausage got made in the first place, that is, how, what, and why material became archival. It also considered, particularly during the round table, how the emphasis on archival research has shifted in relation to access, focus, and costs at an early stage in doctoral research and how digitization increases virtual access to material but may eventually decrease access to originals as footfall decreases thanks to online availability — a Mobius sausage.
The Nineteenth-Century Archive as a Discourse of Power conference did not offer many definitive answers to the questions it raised but, in my view, that was no bad thing. Instead, what it did, and what hopefully future outcomes like a publication or continuing series of events will do, was start discussions about what the archive is, how we approach it as scholars, and how we are complicit, wittingly or no, in continuing the discourses of power that were established long ago. It was a privilege to be able to attend and participate thanks to a bursary from BAVS and the Royal Historical Society, and I very much look forward to seeing what future discussions come from this event.