Working in the Digital Archives (Animals of the RGS, Fieldnotes II)

In this post, I discuss the feelings, navigation, and space of the digital archives. While I have done some work in online archives, such as The Vegan Society’s digitised collection, my previous archival research project was primarily in The British Library’s basement archives, feeling the gritty materiality and closeness to histories. The digital archives, as I write about in the blog, offer a different way of entering, sensing, feeling, relating, and working in the collections.

Entering the archive

The archive has always held a pull for thinkers. Whether alluring (Farge, 1981/2013) or feverous (Derrida, 1996), the archives call to scholars. However, following Hetherington’s conceptualisation of the museum (2004), the archive is also as a space of secondhandedness, of storage and disposal. Where the museum holds countless objects that will never see the light of the display case, archives contain endless labyrinthine stores of knowledge across countless institutions.

Stuart Hall defined the archive as beginning when:

‘a relatively random collection of works, whose movement appears simply to be propelled from one creative moment to the next, is at the point of becoming something more ordered and considered: an object of reflection and debate … [it] represents the end of a certain kind of creative innocence, and the beginning of a new stage of self-consciousness, of self-reflexivity.’

Stuart Hall, Constituting an Archive, 2001, 89

What constitutes an archive is malleable and open. In approaching archives as such, the whole apparatus of “a history” as static and fixed can be dissembled, and the archive becomes a lively object/subject. Archives are dynamic and active, produced through the questions which the present puts to the past and, as Hall continues, “the present always puts its questions differently” (ibid, 92). The wonderment – and enormity – of the archives is alienating but, when the project is defined, the archive can become known, the work begins and this archive secrets its readers in:

‘the archive is an excess of meaning, where the reader experiences beauty, amazement and a certain affective tremor’

Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, 1983/2013, 31

In 2020’s quarantine and lockdown, archives and universities across the world’s physical sites closed, and the prospect of undertaking or continuing research became challenging. A year into the pandemic, adaptations have been made to our working practices, and the virtual realm and digital research that have long occupied the margins of geographical research have been catapulted to the foreground. While the digitisation of the RGS archives predates the pandemic, beginning in 2018, it is within this context that my fellowship has taken place.

Amidst this pandemic pivot to the online, researchers are having to rethink their professional identities and methodologies. In entering the digital archives, I am interested not in what is “lost” in the virtual realm, but how the digital archives offer new experiences for research.

Figure 1: The Wiley Digital Archives platform homepage.

Opening the Wiley Digital Archives platform for the first time brought up that familiar feeling of disorientation (figure 1): where do I begin? What am I looking for? How do I find it? And how am I going to work my way through all of this stuff? I had kept my project proposal relatively broad, being open to animal histories from across the archives, which didn’t necessarily help me to narrow down the search. So, I did what seemed best: searched for “animals.” Scrolling through the thousands of results across manuscripts, photographs, and monographs, it was a map that stopped me:

Figure 2: Two Maps of the World showing the Ranges of Existing & extinct animals. 1870. RGS Images Online. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

The maps, in German, show the range of extinct and existing animals across the world. In German, stumbling across these maps allowed me to study, translate, and begin to think about the role of animals in geographical exploration, and the role of geography in knowing animals. While these maps are not the focus of this blog post, they do take me to the first thing I want to talk about in the archives: spontaneity and movement.

Spontaneity and movement

One of the most enchanting and compelling aspects of archival research has, for me, been in the ability to become immersed in the work and to follow along the archival grain (Stoler, 2010). In the slow work of the archives, my body does not move far, but my mind can quickly move through the archives across the world. In the physical archives, each box is the holder of potential; each turn of the page might reveal a secret. In the digital archives, I was concerned that this feeling of potential might be absent but it actually seems only to have changed in form.

Figure 3: Baker, Samuel. 1861. “Maarif and Tetel Antelope.” RGS Images Online.  © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Late in March, I blocked out a day to work solely on this archival project. Before this, I had been snatching hours in evenings and quiet times to flick through and search the digital archive. The pandemic has affected the way that most researchers are having to work. Interviews are online, ethnographies have been delayed, and the digital space has been taken seriously in ways it has not before. Within this landscape, the digitisation of archives has been an important resource for researchers, especially those with a time pressure (notably PhD students and precariously employed ECRs). There is also, for me at least, a nervousness in having to adapt to a new space and a new platform at the same time as engaging with new collections and topics.

This day, I was determined to finish writing up my first fieldnotes to share on chickens. I closed the door and started my search, started writing. Three hours later, my partner was shouting me to come for lunch. The time had passed in a flash and I had pages of notes scribble in front of me, hundreds of images from the collections downloaded. The photographs particularly grasped my attention, as well as diaries. Reading the diaries, I was fascinated by how people yearned for familiar, comforting foods when conditions in their expeditions were tough, and how they witnessed and commented on the eating and rearing practices of other people and communities.

Figure 4: A group of Sherpas gather to eat and write notes at Camp IV wearing high altitude boots. Alfred Gregory, Everest Expeditions, 3/1/1953. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

In her 2021 book, Eating in Theory, Annemarie Mol writes about her own walking (and eating) against John Wylie’s Ways of Walking. Wylie, Mol writes, “mentions eating only in passing, as if it were intrinsically uninteresting” (27). For Mol – and for me in the archive – eating became a way of finding “ordinary” animals and humans’ relationship to them, in actuality and in the imagination. The role of eating in geographical expeditions has take on a new salience for my project in “finding” animals in a way that I didn’t expect: as imagined desire through food. Over the coming weeks and months, I hope to think more about the role of animals in the geographical imagination in mundane ways, especially eating, through diaries and accounts. This spontaneity and unexpectedness was something I was uncertain would be possible in the digital archives, and I am excited to have been able to pick up these threads and immerse myself in the “archive fever.”

Feeling (in) the digital archives

My previous experience in the archives relied heavily on the materiality and sensory connection with the documents, boxes and histories around me. The silence of the archive ushers me in, whispering to me to lose myself in it. In the first few weeks in the digital archives, my exhaustion of screens combined with the short times I was finding to engage with this project had left me wanting to do more – to feel more. As many will recognise, a year of working at home during a pandemic does not allow much space for focus as home leaks into the workspace, and vice versa. I am very lucky that I was able to make time to do this at all, but before my archive fever in late March, I was starting to worry that I would not be able to feel or connect with the archive in the ways that make for interesting research.

Figure 5: The oldest inhabitant of Galle (this tortoise belonged to a Dutch Governor and is supposed to be 140 years old). F. Sternberg ©Royal Geographical Society

It was a little thing that disrupted this, which I noticed when writing about chickens in the archive. It was, perhaps obviously, a chicken which made me connect with and beyond the archives. Reproduced in figure 5 is a picture of a tortoise that I wrote about in the chickens post. In the background, to the right of the human, is a white leghorn chicken. This chicken is clearly not meant to be in the photograph and, I imagine, has been shooed out multiple times before sneaking in at the last second before the camera snapped. Of course, I cannot confirm this story, but it is easy to imagine. In looking through photographs, it begins to feel stranger not that there are chickens in the archives, but that, relatively, there aren’t many.

We know that the chicken is ubiquitous the world over. They live in every country (except Vatican City) and on every continent (except Antarctica). Through the 17th to 19th Centuries, chickens would have been free-roaming in most places, living alongside and within human societies. I began to ask how the chickens had been removed from the archival images. Had photographers and geographers shooed them out? Had the chickens resisted by sneaking back in? Was it a game? Were they refusing to play along? Knowing chickens, it could be any and all of these. It added a new light to my searching the archives. Looking at the chicken behind the tortoise, I laugh at them, their complete obliviousness at the serious work of geographical expedition, and their refusal to be removed from documentation. And so, the befriending of the archives began (which I have written about here).

Alongside the enchantment of the archive are also uncomfortable and violent histories and representations. Figures 6 and 7 are images from the Samuel Baker “Watercolours” collection. Within it, there is a series of pictures of white men and “natives” [sic] hunting animals. In these two images, the first, Finale of Lioness, depicts a lioness lay with a paw in the air swatting a rock thrown at her as her front leg bleeds. To the right foreground, a white hunter in hat and shirt is next to two shirtless native men. All three are carrying guns, and one has thrown the rock at the lioness. The second painting, Finale of Lion Hunt, shows a large male lion taking up most of the page. The lion’s legs are splayed, he is lay on the floor, one paw reaches up as he looks back at the hunter. There is blood on the lion’s side. In the foreground on the right, the white hunter’s gun is aimed at the lion’s head, a bullet just released and mid-air. To the left of the white hunter’s leg, in the nearby bushes, is a shirtless native man.

It is always autumn in the nearby bushes. This sentence pleases you. It makes the bushes seem far away, like a place you have migrated to – a place that knows the lessening sun, the increasing dark, the beautiful fall of things.

Kei Miller. in nearby bushes. 2019. Carcanet.
Figure 6: Baker, Samuel. 1861–1873. “Watercolours.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 1861–1873.

A historian or art historian would be able to read and analyse these images, and the others contained in this collection, in detail to pull out the colonial and racial representations writ large in the watercolours. In the geographical archives, it is impossible to ignore the violence that followed expedition and exploration, and the central role of geography in the colonisation of the world. From my critical animal geographies perspectives, these pictures upfront the “trophy” of hunting animals for sport and power as deeply entangled with white Western domination and oppression of the world.

Samuel Baker was an English explorer, officer, naturalist, big game hunter, engineer, writer and abolitionist. He began hunting in Scotland and consistently hunted throughout his life in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. His “observations of the animal world” through the lens of his gun are recounted in his book Wild Beasts and Their Ways (1890). Studying his watercolours, of which these two are of a less gruesome nature, the archive’s ability to affect me is obvious. The layers of human and beyond-human violence is overwhelming, and I have to take a break from the archives regularly. Having studied violence and pain through animal activism for some years, it is never discomfort or shock that moves me, but the slow creep of the seemingly endless nature of the suffering of humans, animals, and nature.

A picture of the two books mentioned in this post that I have been reading for non-work purposes, but that seeped into my thinking space: Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar and Kei Miller’s in nearby bushes.

I am part way through reading Alice Walker’s The Temple of my Familiar at the moment. In Part One, Miss Lissie, an elder who remembers her past lives and incarnations, tells a story about our animal cousins. In this early life of hers – the only life in which she had known peace – ‘we are very small people, all of us, not just the children … we are in a forest that, for all we know, covers the whole earth … Our aunts and mothers were often tired after a day gathering food […] Those were the times they could not stand us children, and so we were sent to our cousins’ trees.’ Miss Lissie learned love, family, and freedom from the cousins.

Our cousins were big – as big as we were small – and black and hairy, with big teeth, flat black eyes, and piercingly intelligent and gentle eyes […] The fathers and uncles were gigantic and mean-looking when provoked, with a roar that hurt your ears. The mothers and aunts could bare their teeth […] But they were menacing only when someone or something came into their domain uninvited

My life with the cousins is the only dream memory of peace that I have.

Alice Walker. 1989. The Temple of My Familiar. The Women’s Press. 82-85.

Walker’s womanist novel ‘creates a salutary vision, which points toward a monistic idealism in which humans, animals, and the whole ecological order coexist in a unique dynamic of pancosmic symbiosis’ (Dieke, Toward a Monistic Idealism, 1992). Reading the novel in the evenings, after spending hours concentrated on the archives’ animals has led me to think about how the two are moving me in different, but reflected, ways. The digital archive is not, as I expected, devoid of feeling or affective power. Rather, the screen becomes a medium into these histories that allows for spontaneity and movement, for feeling and relating, and finding new ways into the material that spin together and are moulded in this space that is both home and work, here and there, nowhere and everywhere.

Reflections on the digital archives

Questions of power, politics, representation, ownership, and colonisation are never far from the Royal Geographical Society’s archives. Who collected these? How and why? What are the representations and stories that we can find in the archives? Who is written out of the archives? To whom do these stories belong? However, these questions can also be asked of the archive itself: who digitised, ordered, and captioned these documents? What is their connection to the archive? How do those ordering the archives collate together different objects? The archives and the Archive are not distinct from one another; questions of the content cannot be separated from the building and existence of the collections themselves. As I continue to work through the archives, I hope to keep these questions at the front of my fieldnotes. However, I am also interested in how the digital archives open this space to more researchers.

Since beginning writing this second post in my fieldnotes series, I had a call with the director of the Wiley digital archives, Peter Foster. Peter taught me several visualisation, mapping, and textual analyses that are built into the digital archives. I haven’t yet tried out in detail these analyses, but it is obvious that the digital archives are not merely a new way of viewing the archives. Rather, they present an opportunity to engage and approach the archives from new directions. Over the coming weeks, I will be trialling these tools in my ongoing research in the archives and will share my experiences (and likely frustrations!) with these tools.

While digital archives are a totally different space to the physical archives, the two aren’t necessarily comparable. While the materiality and feeling of the archives changes, it is not with a sense of loss or disconnection that I am working through these archives, even if I expected or anticipated this. Rather, I am excited by the ability to bring the archives into my own home (or, hopefully, soon my office or a cafe…) and the ways that new tools and visualisations allow different routes “in” to the archives. An accessible online tool that has reproduced high quality images and transcripts of hundreds of thousands of documents is transformative for researchers who are, for a variety of reasons, unable or unwilling to visit the archives in London. What this might mean for the quality and breadth of research in the archives is exciting, particularly if the system can be made free at the point of use to both institutional and independent researchers.

Moreover, the digitisation of archives can preserve invaluable sources of history against disaster, even if this is not in their original form. With the disastrous and heartbreaking fire at Cape Town’s Jagger Library, archives and digitisation has been thrust to the fore (Shannon Morreira, for The Conversation). The director of the Libraries, Ujala Satgoor, confirmed some collections were lost in the fire, and shockwaves of loss and mourning shot through communities and academic networks who had worked there. While there is no replacement for these archives, digitisation programmes can preserve voices of fraught and contested histories.

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