by Rebecca Darley
In 2015 images from the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive featured in a series of workshops, called ‚Research in Translation‘, which I had the opportunity to participate in. These examined the translation of research into exhibition. The meetings held for the event were extremely productive and thought-provoking, bringing together early career researchers from across the humanities and sciences. We had chance to visit museum installations and store-rooms and talk to curators and exhibition designers. The end result, a series of mini-exhibitions, one by each participant, was displayed in Leicester from June 2015 util February 2016 (some images available here).
The David Talbot-Rice Archive
The exhibition I intended to present went through various development stages, most of them trying to do too much and say too little. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work on an archive which I had discovered while working at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham. This was the archive of the art historian and archeaologist David Talbot-Rice. Although most of his collected papers, art works and books were left to the University of Edinburgh where Talbot-Rice spent most of his career,in 1972 his widow, Tamara Talbot-Rice (also a prominent art historian) gave some of his notes and photographs to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, both at the University of Birmingham. These were materials most colsely connected to his work on Byzantine art, and especially to excavations he was involved with between 1927 and 1957 in the eastern Mediterranean. Many sites Talbot-Rice worked on have since been lost, buried or restored so heavily that they are unrecognizable. His photographs are a record of lost archaeological discoveries. In the background of many are also images of vehicles, people, buildings and street activities giving a glimpse into the changing face of the eastern Mediterranean at a time of intense change. His notes and letters record unpublished details of the excavations and evolving debates with other scholars of the region.
But this archive had not been processed or catalogued in any way, and is not the immediate focus of my own research, despite containing many fascinating items. I therefore considered trying to exhibit the idea of the archive or the complications of preserving images digitally. Within the Bilderfahrzeuge group questions about the meaning of digital copying and the implications of image mobility in the digital sphere arise regularly. These discussions, as well as the Research in Translation workshops drew me steadily away from efforts to offer up and analyse what little knowledge I personally had about this particular set of old photographs, notes and letters, and to return, step by step, to why I thought the archive was worth exhibiting in the first place.
The Lost Box
That is, quite simply, the wonder of opening a box and finding for myself the piles of images and words. Some of them aesthetically pleasing and designed to be so. Talbot-Rice was both an archaeologist and a trained photographer with an eye for a good shot. Others were more pragmatic images – close-up shots of an interesting piece of carving or panoramas of an excavation to give an impression of the scope and layout of the work. Some were easily identifiable from major landmarks or notes on the back, others have no such obvious context and await identification – part of the painstaking work of research which accompanies any archive. Some letters were legible, or typed, to family members or famous scholars. Others contained a cryptic sign-off to an unknown addressee. And so this became the core of the exhibition – an insight into vital but usually hidden stages in the research process. The exhibition became not about the researcher as the repository of answers, but the initiator of a quest filled with questions, and ultimately about the material being investigated.
Entitled, ‚The Lost Box‘, the exhibition aims at simplicity and a tactile understanding of the process of research. Over 100 copies of images and notes from the archive are available in a box, to be rifled through, examined and commented on. Pens, pencils and maginfying glasses are provided along with post-it notes. Some notes on the reverse of photographs either preserve information found with the images or record my initial questions, ideas or identifications. Participants are invited to write their own comments and questions on the post-its and leave them with the exhibition, building up a new and complementary archive of information and inquiry, which will travel with this material, beyond the closing date of the exhibition and into a larger project of which it forms a part.
Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive (BEMA)
The Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive (BEMA), run by myself and Daniel Reynolds, a colleague at the University of Birmingham, is an effort to make available digitally the private archives of scholars and travellers to the Eastern Mediterranean (broadly interpreted to mean, at least, Italy and most of the Near East as well). Working with the David Talbot-Rice Archive alerted both of us to the frrequent loss of private archives, which if they are not left to a library or other repository, are often disposed of when a scholar moves onto a new project or finishes their career. Even when archives are deposited safely somewhere it is by no means certain that the place where the material is left will have the significant resources needed to catalogue and make available the material, as was the case for the David Talbot-Rice Archive. This is where we think the digital has a role to play both in preservation and analysis.
The aim of BEMA is to make archives digitally available in precisely the form they come to us. No additional research will be undertaken as part of the digitising process, though any existing notes are kept with images. Once the images are available, however, viewers are welcome to offer identifications, transcriptions or more detailed research work. The assistance of the University of Birmingham College of Arts and Law has enabled us to hire two undergraduate interns this summer, who have made available several thousand new images and who are also conducting research which will help to promote the archive as a space for research as well as presentation. And so, the Lost Box exhibition comes full circle. Since the David Talbot-Rice archive is one of those being digitised, all of the questions and comments offered by exhibition visitors will also become part of the digital archive, reflecting engagement with the material and new ideas and directions for research.