This has been the week to finish ploughing through what I’ve come to call my “Basement Archive.” This is a collection of letters to and from Mary Ann Shadd Cary that she left in the basement of her house near Chatham when she went back to the U.S. When her house was taken down in the late 20th century, the local community rescued this box of letters and saved it in another basement. It is this archive of letters that will form the underpinnings of my film. And it is this set of letters that I have been reading and summarizing over the past few weeks.
Along with reading the letters, I’ve also recently read parts of Tony Bennett’s book Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism. In it he talks about the debates that took place in the late 19th century over the value of field naturalist analysis, where artifacts could be viewed in their natural space, vs. sedentary naturalist analysis, where objects from a wide range of places and time periods could be brought together for direct comparison. This reminded me of my reading of the Shadd letters in my own living room in Ottawa, and my interpretations of them, versus the way I may think of them when I am in southern Ontario next week. Bennett also refers to Anne McClintock’s phrase “panoptical time and anachronistic space” which seems to describe my analytical situation since I have taken these letters both out of their place and time in order to do my research. By taking objects out of their original environment and placing them in new contexts, some new analysis may be done. But Bennett also adds that, based on John Law’s Actor Network Theory, objects exist (or are understood) in the context of their material relations and they are performed or perform themselves in these contexts. So will my Ottawa-based interpretations be new and novel, or just misplaced?
I’m close to having finished my arrangements for my trip next week but I still want to do some more reading. I would like to look at some of the other archival material that I’ve collected: some letters from Fisk University in Tennessee, as well as notes from my trip to Library and Archives Canada last spring. I am also hoping to look at some more of the secondary literature on archives of letters, as well as a new book called The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlement and Beyond, edited by Boulou Ebanda de B’béri, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope Wright. Finally, on Monday I will pick up all the camera gear, lights, microphones, batteries, and digital storage material to take with me next week. I am also going to get some ‘refresher’ training from the Media Production Centre at Carleton University, since it has been almost two years since I got my original training on the use of the camera.