Research in the Time of Social Distancing

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By Professor Andrew Shanken

As most Americans settled into the realization that the virus was real and we slowly found ourselves living on islands, archives, museums, and historical societies shut their doors and began to contemplate cultural distancing. On the one hand, unknowingly they had been preparing for this moment for years by digitizing holdings and creating increasingly dynamic virtual portals for a virtual public. On the other hand, the virtual archive or museum was most often understood rather like an avatar is to a human: a radically simplified representation of the real thing. The virtual collection is an amuse-bouche for the would-be visitor or researcher, or, more nobly, a partial democratization of access, but most historians insist on seeing the artifacts, and with good reason. Many original images are really three-dimensional. To a much greater extent their digital scans, they betray the process of their making and use through underpainting, notes, and sketches on the verso, and the evidence of handling, much of which is lost in digital renderings. For instance, for a book on the 1939 San Francisco world's fair, part of the E.D. Archives series, I found dozens of pinholes in some drawings by Bernard Maybeck, none in others. He had pinned them up repeatedly, either to discuss them or to rework them or both. He often used both sides and would jot down notes that became indispensable in dating them and creating a chronology of the development of his ideas.

The pandemic caught me at the tail end of another book, The Everyday Life of Memorials. Just as I needed to wrap up vital research questions and acquire images and permissions to use them, the institutions I rely on for my research were closing. Not only would I have to forego pinpricks, but basic access to images seemed unlikely. No matter, digitized collections and blessedly enlightened views of the public domain came to the rescue. The Louvre has hi-res images of innumerable paintings waiting for scholarly use. A gorgeous scan of Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Marat" was there for the taking. Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" came courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The British Museum offered up a scan of an engraving of 1753 for Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” an early Gothic Revival gem. The Library of Congress proved a treasure trove of public domain images. With some creative maneuvering and a little rewriting, I was able to use their online visual collections extensively. All of these images came without the need for permission requests and they were free. Each one felt like winning a lottery ticket.

But my quest for about a dozen other images ran aground. Simple questions that archivists can answer immediately lingered for weeks; many went unanswered because many archives were down for the count. With some reluctance, I sheepishly turned to the hive mind. This is not my proudest moment as a researcher. Like many people, I have grave misgivings about the way Facebook uses personal information and has interjected itself into politics. I have vacillated between absenting myself and using it to make sense of the turn of affairs since 2016. But a good researcher should leave no stone unturned, even one he wishes Mark Zuckerberg would crawl back under. My first shout into the mist on May 23: "Anyone have a high res image of the Defenders of the Russian Land Monument in Moscow? I need it for a publication and would be happy to give you photo credits. No chance I get to Moscow anytime soon...." An answer came immediately from an old acquaintance: look at Russian Google and try Памятник защитнику земли российской. Bingo. I found a public domain image immediately. I didn't even know that a Russian Google existed. But of course, it does!


Monument to the Defenders of the Russian Land in Moscow, 1995. Courtesy Тара-Амингу (Tara Amingu). Public domain.

It worked so well that I tried again on May 30: "Anyone live near McAllen, Texas, or have a friend who does? I'm trying to get photographs of a war memorial there, which includes this lovely specimen of GW," and I attached the best image I could find from the web. Again, instant success brought offers from friends of friends to take photographs for me. I'll be publishing this one by a 13-year old aspiring photographer.


Statue of George Washington, All Wars Memorial, McAllen, Texas, Courtesy of Ellie Villareal, photographer.

My third attempt was apparently more obscure than Moscow or McAllen: "Apologies in advance for going too often to the Facebook well! Anyone have a friend in Warren, Ohio? I need eyes on the Every Woman Memorial in Women’s Park. It's a research question...Thx!" I didn't need a photograph this time, but rather a confirmation of an inscription: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Virginia Woolf wrote this resolute rejection of patriotism in 1938 in the context of the rise of Fascism, with World War II clearly on the horizon. This would have made the memorial a curious rejoinder to Warren’s male soldier memorials in an adjacent park. Alas, there are not six degrees of separation between me and anyone in Warren. That or Facebook's algorithm is conspiring against me.


Every Woman Memorial, Women’s Park, Warren, Ohio, 2008. Courtesy Jack Pearce, photographer. Public domain


World War I Memorial, Warren, Ohio, dedicated 1941, but designed in the 1920s. E. M. Visquesney, sculptor. Postcard from author’s collection.

The search for this and other images and information continues. With no clear end to the pandemic, I have some difficult decisions to make. Some images may be cut, text will be altered, the character of the book changed in numerous small ways. Paper trails have always run dry and archives have always had limitations. Technophiles sometimes say that eventually, everything will be available online. This attitude recalls Borges's lampoon of "a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point." This adventure in cultural distancing, for all of its triumphs, only strengthens my belief that poring over materials in archival collections is indispensable and will never be supplanted by the web.



Photo: Professor Andrew Shanken

Andy Shanken is an architectural and urban historian with an interest in how cultural constructions of memory shape the built environment (and vice versa). He is a Board Member in American Studies, Faculty Curator of the Environmental Design Archives, on the Faculty Advisory Committee at the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Global Urban Humanities. He has a joint appointment in American Studies.