The start of the process

As I’m completing my final project, an online collection of images and objects, and looking back on my notes from the beginning of my work with my organisation, I wanted to use this chance to reflect on those initial experiences. I began working with Wesley College, one of the residential colleges at the University of Sydney, offering to do some work digitizing their archives. When suggesting this to the Director of Programs at the college, I was met with a knowing look and an enthusiastic all clear to go ahead. In retrospect, I should have known.
The “archive” I was led to comprised of a spacious and well-lit cupboard in the newly renovated part of the building. So far, so good. Looking inside however, I found it filled from floor to ceiling with boxes, piles of loose papers and photos slipping haphazardly onto the floor out of overflowing crates, with no discernable order or system. It seemed my task had evolved from the simple digitization of an existing archive to trying to establish some sort of organizational system.
This task has truly exemplified the phrase “easier said than done”. The main challenge I have faced is the sheer quantity of material. Wesley was established in 1917 and student enrollment and academic records, yearly ledgers, photographs of every shape and size, student magazines and countless other records have been (albeit sometimes sporadically) kept and now reside in this room. These often include duplicates or more multiples (up to 50 copies in some cases). Furthermore, the continual shifting of these records has led to damage of some of the oldest books, photographs and files. With my complete lack of skill and experience dealing with old objects, all I could do is try to be as gentle as possible.
Despite this, in sifting through the masses, fascinating nuggets of history have fallen into my hands. The initial appeal of being the first to look at these sources in a historical had almost faded (after ten hours) until suddenly, in sorting through a pile of photos, the face of an 18 year old Rob Carlton (who I had seen on TV playing Kerry Packer) in a debating photo, brought back the interest and excitement. So did seeing the eyes of a close friend stare back at me from the face of her grandfather in the Rugby First XV of 1947. Even reading a memo from the matron in 1965 requesting teaspoons be returned to the dining hall, in the same week as current students of Wesley received a Facebook notification asking them to search for and return missing cups taken at mealtimes had the same effect.
Indeed, the stark digitization of the current Wesley experience, and that which I had discovered in the paper trails of earlier years, was one of the significant things I’ve taken from the experience. The relative lack of photos and records since 2000, after the overload of tangible documentation from previous years, is kind of disappointing. I began to question whether I should be digitizing old sources, or ensuring recent years are physically documented in this room. I think I went archive crazy.
Looking back on the process, I couldn’t imagine trying to do my final project without doing the organizational tasks. Instead of trying to find sources for my final project, I was now simply selecting from the abundance of potential sources I had. I have in no way even approached a satisfactory completion of the task of organizing the archives, however in discussion with the college, I hope to continue this work next year.

Changing ideas on material history

I have always enjoyed what I thought of as material culture in history, and through my history units so far have persistently been drawn to the study of objects, art, buildings – tangible things. From the decoding of erotic messages in medieval mirrors as gifts of courtly love, to the subtle political alliances that imbued 18th century court dress, the deciphering and interpreting of the stuff of a particular period, has always floated my academic boat.
This process of investigating and drawing inferences from material objects and tangible items, and using them as primary sources, has been somewhat complicated in my mind in this unit through the distinction between private and public history.
Rosenzweig and Thelen’s examination of people engaging with their private history every day through the use of family photo albums and heirlooms, but not necessarily viewing this process as “history” has intrigued me. In being told the story of my mother’s immigration to Australia, and looking at the “vintage” luggage tags from the three month journey, am I engaging in history or nostalgia? If I viewed luggage tags from the same era in the Immigration Museum of Melbourne, surely that counts as history?
On reflecting upon this question, I realised that to date, my university history studies have always have focused on periods and societies from at least two centuries ago, meaning I have never really had to consider this before. Of course a 16th century tapestry is a historical artifact, but what about the quilt that my mother was given by her aunts, and still sits on our couch at home?
One of our class speakers, Mark Dunn, inspired me with his inclusion of images and material objects (like advertisements) in a public history context, and the idea of curating the material culture of private individuals and establishments and presenting them for public consumption, is something I would love to further explore.
In her book Private Lives, Public History, Anna Clark explores the relationship between Australians and their heirlooms, family photographs and stories. In questioning whether “granny’s embroidery” is really history, and indeed, whether people feel more connected to these tangible familial memories than the history they learn in class, Clark has me wondering if my engagement in the objects themselves, is really the deciding factor. If I want to catalogue and display the luggage tags, to investigate the (somewhat horrid) 70’s style influences of the quilt, surely the question of whether it is an exercise in history, or nostalgia, doesn’t really matter.