Research: it’s called ‘hands on’ for a reason
Welcome to our final “Fresh Eye” interview with Stephanie Lile, ace author/researcher, and currently curator at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
VL: Stephanie, I’m excited about the “hands on” parts of your research, because that’s an area I am especially drawn to. As you know, in studying the ancient world, earlier historians often dismissed humbler objects and quotidian details, preferring instead to focus on the doings of great men and the writings of patrician superstars. Today that attitude has changed; and with it, the methodology. Let’s start with the tools you employ these days.
SL: At our museum’s History Lab Learning Center, we identified seven key “tools of the history trade” (artifacts; ephemera; maps; people; images; books/periodicals; and electronic media) to help us get a handle on past lives and civilizations. As the most valuable sources for historical evidence, these tools apply to all fields of research, not just history.
VL: Artifacts; what do you folks specifically mean by the term?
SL: Artifacts are three-dimensional objects made and/or used by humans. They often blend function, art, and culture. Works of art, such as pottery or textiles, are artifacts.
VL: What are the memorable artifacts you’ve handled in your careers as museum curator and researcher?
SL: I love Greek pots. I admire them for their usefulness and their artistic merit. For example, one particular pot at the Getty Villa shows Herakles (known as Hercules to the Romans) fighting the nine-headed Hydra. That pot made me realize that Greek vases are, in fact, the first graphic novels! A whole story is told on that painted pot.
SL: My current favorite is the inner coffin of our museum’s mummy, Ankh-Wennefer. It’s covered with beautiful paintings and hieroglyphics—–which depict the entire life story of the man he once was. Imagine having that on your coffin! We’re presenting an exhibit on this extraordinary artifact in January 2011.
VL: Your second category, called ephemera (Greek for “day”) sounds modern. In it you include paper documents and printed items intended for brief use. What sorts of ephemera do you find invaluable?
SL: Most of my Tail Gunner novel is based on the World War II ephemera my father left behind. Things like tickets to the Vatican Museum and to Pompeii; a dinner pass to a Royal Air Force club; postcards from a Florida gunnery school. I used this “trail of breadcrumbs” to trace my dad’s movements. Ephemera may be fleeting but their usage in research provides tangible evidence like no other.
VL: I recently did a blogpost about unlikely discoveries found on recycled pieces of ancient papyrus. One was a to-do list from an Egyptian official named Zenon, who lived in the 3rd century AD. That would classify as ephemera, wouldn’t it?
SL: Yes, because (like our own daily to-do lists) it was a casual, “use and throw away” item.
VL: Let’s jump ahead to images. I’ve gotten a deeper understanding of people who lived in ancient times by studying encaustic paintings of them on wooden panels or shrouds. One group, collectively called the Fayum mummy portraits, seem to speak directly to me. What do such images convey to you?
SL: One that sticks in my mind is another Fayum mummy portrait. While working at the Getty Villa I got to know Herakleides, the collection’s Red Shroud mummy, very well. He was a favorite because of the crossing of cultures he represented. His name was Greek, his mummification technique was Egyptian, and his portrait was in the Roman style. Even more intriguing, the body of an ibis bird (found via CT scan) was found in his mummy wrappings.
VL: On their artwork, Greeks and Romans included multiple mythological symbols, astrological signs, jewelry and other indicators of social class, and other pictorial “shorthand” that viewers of that time readily understood. What do you use to help you translate this visual meta-language for today’s museum-goer, educator—or for a writer like me, doing historical research?
SL: I have a shelf full of symbology dictionaries, both old and new. Symbols are tricky because you to have take into account both the symbol’s meaning and the time period in which it appears. For example, at countless ancient Roman sites you see eagles and snakes depicted. Thus it wasn’t an accident that the founding fathers of America also picked the eagle and the snake, symbols of strength and solidarity, for their new country.
VL: Stephanie, another of your tools is maps. What can be gleaned from maps of earlier periods, besides the differences in placenames and political boundaries?
SL: Maps show change. They show changes in thinking and knowledge, technology, and places. They can provide the sense of a place in a previous time that we’d never guess would have existed.
VL: Today’s children spend a growing amount of time in “virtual reality.” Their exposure to the natural world, and to the world of the past, comes largely via imagery on screens large and small. Granted, it’s often beautiful, startling, even emotional—but the images are still second-hand representations. How can the language of objects, the kinds of things you talk about, help children get engaged with the real world, past and present?
SL: Many aspects of our lives are so pre-packaged that we (adults as well as kids) have forgotten where they come from, and how. Historical inquiry fosters a natural curiosity about the objects in our world. Thinking skills–the same ones used by doctors, detectives, writers, and inventors–are valuable for more than studying history. They’re essential to anyone seeking the truth. Whether you’re a schoolchild or a working adult, knowing how to use research tools beyond Google gives your work an authenticity you can’t achieve any other way.
VL: Thanks very much, Stephanie. Learn more about research and sources at her blog (http://whatsthatthing.wordpress.com) and from her book History Lab to Go! published by Washington State History Museum. Learn more about that museum’s mummy at: http://columbia.washingtonhistory.org/kids/Fall2008/collections-conumdrum.aspx.