Saturday, 20 November 2010

On Archival Discoveries: Or, Why Didn't I Find That?

A drawing of the skull of Richard II, National Portrait Gallery

Historians and researchers dream of making that extraordinary, earth-shattering discovery in the archives. It happens but rarely, and most of the time our "major discoveries" come in the form of some minor letter or memo, showing that, for example, a government decision may have been taken a whole month before popularly thought. Oh oh oh! -- The nerdy historical heart leaps at such minutiae! We clutch the piece of evidence, excitedly insert the non-acidic bookmark for photocopying, make our painstaking notes, and think of how worthwhile a day it has been. After hours of sifting through material irrelevant to our project, we have found the gold beneath the dross, no matter how small a nugget it might prove to be.

Yet occasionally, a researcher is fortunate enough to make a truly portentous discovery. Recently, at the National Portrait Gallery, as staff were sorting through long-unopened boxes, they, as reported in The Guardian,
"discovered relics from the coffin of Richard II, along with detailed drawings of his skull which could be used to create a true likeness of the deposed medieval king. To say the researchers were taken aback by the discovery in the archive of the gallery's founding director, Sir George Scharf, is perhaps an understatement... 'it's one of the biggest pleasures of this job to literally feel that you are touching history.' " The full story here.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

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