Meeting the History Detectives

This commission is a Connecting Communities and Arts in Parliament project. In 2009 a group of people from Norwich came together under the name of the History Detectives to explore the Land Tax Act of 1821 and specifically five of the commissioners from Norwich responsible for the administration of the tax. This project brings some of those original researchers back together with some new members to re-visit documents, refresh memories and reconsider the documents in both the Norfolk Record Office and Parliamentary Archives.

So yesterday we met one another in the first group session of the project. I gave a brief introduction to my work focusing on the projects where I have used historical research as a starting point. This will be the first time I have worked with images of material from this date.

The group are very enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoyed looking at the documents we ordered up in advance from the strong room. To start the visual process I asked the group to work on a timeline, mapping the historical material. We will add to this map each week and it will form the basis for me to develop the final digital artwork.

I’m looking forward to next week when we look at further documents and start to plan site visits around Norwich.


Mark making

I have taken a number of photographs of the marks on the documents and in the books I have been looking at.

Ownership, catalogue classification and references have been recorded in different ways over time, each offers a different aesthetic. The punched logo is my favorite by far but I can take an educated guess that this practice is no longer used. I always thought it was a shame when the library introduced automated book issue and stopped stamping books with return dates. The record of how many people have borrowed a book is no longer visually present.

Art practice takes me places I can never predict, admittedly seeing Horatio Nelson’s signature wasn’t on any to do list but nevertheless I felt very privileged as I unfolded a letter written by him and read its courteous content (about being offered the freedom of the city of Norwich) and viewed his beautiful handwriting and signature.

With this in mind I was looking through a copy of Creative Review the other day and found a rather wonderful project: Hand Written Letter Project, which is about just that, the importance of hand written letters in the age of digital communication. Check out the website for examples and if you want to send your own letter to the projects originator there is an opportunity to do so.


I am being diligent and now have a recording method for information about each photograph I take, so I know which document the image is of. This will likely be very useful when I come to work on the final digital artwork that I will produce at the end of the residency.



I have had to go back and amend things – my artistic note taking (all over the place on a page) had led me to credit a Thomas Watkin Forster sticker in the front of a book to the Norfolk Annal but in fact it was from Blomefield’s Norfolk. Lesson learnt, I hope. I’m not an archivist or trained historian so my recording processes are perhaps more open, and after all mistakes in art practice are so valuable. I wonder how many other mistakes have been made with the materials in the collection, and when they are discovered are articles moved and re-catalogued?

When looking at the opening pages of the book Norfolk Families by W.Rye he states “Of course this work does not pretend to be perfect. It is far from it, and in the nature of things must be full of errors of which any corrections will be thankfully received”. Some of these were formally added to the front of the book under the typed title of errata, however one individual took it upon himself to amend the book itself.

The search room was busy today, people examining documents closely, transcribing information onto computers, photographing, reflecting, making connections and notes. After my visit I had to formulate my thoughts into a residency proposal detailing how I plan to work with the group of history enthusiasts that I will meet for the first time next week.


Lets talk about stuff

Following on from yesterday and the quote from The Times in 1900 about how we might decide what is valuable and what is valueless – I’ve been thinking about stuff. The National Archives, local archives, businesses and community archives, personal archives, artist archives. The list is endless, but how do we go about deciding what to keep?

Artists who defy the notion of being selective within collecting include Karsten Bott – with his Museum of Everything. He is included in this article ‘Collecting as Art’ where the writer Christian Marc Schmidt brings together a group of artists who have a practice that features collecting, grouping and categorising objects and images. The article discusses the ‘need to categorize as a basic human trait’ and I agree. The sorting, clearing and focused (and unfocused) collecting many of us undertake varies greatly.

Collections represent who we are and what we consider to be important to us. By extension considering the archives I am working with specifically, the items within the collection need to operate as a representation of a particular time or place, what happened there and who was involved. For this project looking at the five commissioners selected for in depth investigation, all have items in the archive, a fact which obviously informed the decision to look at them in more detail.

You can read Christian Marc Schmidt’s brief article here:

Off to the archive again today so more later.


The Gloves are off

During the tour of the Acts room at the Parliamentary Archive, the archivist Mari took down a scroll from one of the shelves, albeit very careful and confidently – but with no gloves. There seems to be a popular notion that gloves are needed to handle historical documents. But wearing the archetypal white cloth gloves, effects dexterity and can increases the likelihood of damage. Not having to use gloves makes handling documents easier and more accessible.

So in my search for more information about what was happening in 1821 in Norwich, (and back in the Norfolk Record Office) a book ‘Norfolk Annals – A Chronological Record of Remarkable Events in the19th Century’ – snappy title, it proved to be very engrossing. Inside the front cover is a sticker with a coat of arms and the name of one Thomas Watkin Forster (actually I find that it’s not from this book at all but rather Blomefield’s Norfolk Vol.5 more accurate note taking needed perhaps!) This intrigues me as I am often interested in how objects have found their way into collections, museums and archives alike. I have resisted the temptation to find out who he is and instead focused on the contents of the book.

Within the remarkable events from 1821 are repeated mentions of the affairs of coach companies running between Norwich and London with one account from the 10th February detailing that it took 24 hours. No longer shall I complain about the delays on the Norwich to London Liverpool Street train line.

Inside the book there is a great quote:
“It is beyond the capacity of the human intellect to discriminate beforehand between what is valuable and what is valueless in the pursuit of historical research. What would we give now for newspapers and trade circulars illustrating the social habits of many bygone times and people?”
The Times May 4th 1900

This leads me to consider the acquisition policies of archives but more of that later.