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.
The Land Act Tax of 1821
This commission builds on existing links between the Norfolk Record Office and the Parliamentary Archive. The Land Tax Act of 1821 is the longest Act held in the Parliamentary Archives and is 348 meters long with an estimated 65,000 names of commissioners, each hand written. The commissioners were the people, usually pillars of society, held responsible for ensuring the collection of the tax and were based across England, Wales and Scotland. In 2009 a group in Norwich called The History Detectives, explored the stories of 5 Norwich commissioners through the Connecting Communities programme. The case study can be viewed here: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/tra…
My job is to now revisit that project, look at the relevant documents, work with the group & the Archive staff to create a digital artist response.
In August I visited the Parliamentary Archives, housed in Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). I was taken into the Acts Room where historical Acts of Parliament are stored as they originally would have been in scrolls. This room is a visual feast and I was told it is often photographed and filmed. This kind of backstage tour is one of the privileges of being an artist, from one year to the next I cannot predict what I might be invited to look at and respond to.
As we walked through the House of Lords and House of Commons I realised how I need to read around the Land Act Tax, the history of the Palace of Westminster and what was happening in 1821 – more of that in the next post.
Today I had a behind the scenes tour at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO). Being behind the scenes is something I image most artists relish and I am no exception. Susan, Principal Archivist at NRO was a great tour guide and once in the strong room we talked about the purpose built nature of the building. The previous record office was in the basement of the Norwich Central Library which went up in flames in the 1990’s.
The strong room in which we stood was one of three, all containing documents pertaining to all aspects of Norfolk life and history. I was interested in how the information was organised and if the archive numbering system related in any way to the Dewey library system. There is no connection but there is a standard system but the actual numbering system is up to the individual archive. There are conventions which state what must be included: Title of the Document, Date, Level, Reference, Extent and Archive Creator. Understanding, interpreting and responding to different processes and procedures is what I find so interesting about working in new situations and with people from different knowledge and professional backgrounds.
Susan pulled out a number of document boxes for us to have a look at. One of which included a document which had been looked at by Francis Blomefield who wrote the County History of Norfolk. The documents that Blomefield looked at in the 18th century can be easily identified in the archive as he marked each one with a small circle with a cross inside. This idea of being able to track who has looked at documents has been re-invented (as marking marks are no longer permitted!) – each document taken from the archive strong room is recorded together with the name of the person requesting it. In the future someone may be interested in the names and number of people who have viewed a document in addition to the content.