I encountered two animals in the archive my first day conducting research this summer. The first was a mouse. As I opened my very first box from a collection in Pennsylvania, pulled by the archivists for my viewing pleasure, I happened upon some torn paper. A loose scroll was shredded. As I lifted it for inspection, white pieces fell from it like confetti. I panicked. The archivists on staff took the matter very seriously, as they concluded a mouse had made a nest in this box. We scrambled together to make sure the other twelve boxes I pulled from this collection were in good condition, finding dust and pests had inhabited some (not all!) boxes for some time and caused some damage. Save for the scroll of paper, nothing else was lost to the collection. But, it took my request for a series that had been in storage for several decades to reveal its condition (and its nonhuman inhabitants!).
That same day I flipped through the pages of a scientist’s journal. His handwriting was mesmerizing. I loved reading about the precise days and times this early 20th century chemist met with a veterinarian to make sure the calves he bought for experiments were healthy. And there they were at the middle of the journal – pictures of these calves! I squealed with delight to find the glossy black and white images accompanied by the beautiful handwriting.
These are two of many ways an historian or archivist can come to animals in the archives, and this barely scratches the surface of experiences and interactions. This was evident in the papers and roundtables organized for the University of Pennsylvania symposium, Animals in the Archives. The two day event took place from October 27th to 28th, bringing together historians, librarians, archivists, and even scientists (to a degree) to discuss interactions in the archive similar to the ones I had this summer. The stories shared ranged from the recognition of animals as material (parchment, book binding, taxidermy) to animals as subjects in film narratives, photographs, and rhetoric. Below are my personal “take aways” from this event as a budding historian of animals.
A film screening of Matto Grosso, The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931) launched the beginning of this symposium. Housed within the Penn Museum’s archives, the film is known as one of the first non-fiction films to incorporate animal sounds, according to film specialist Kate Pourshariati. This is due in part to the rapidly changing technologies of the time – when explorers could enter the field with various kinds of equipment to document visual and auditory material from a given area. Many different kinds of animals were featured in the film and included both wild Brazilian animals and domesticated “Old World” species. The story told by the film producers was one of science and friendship: the explorers collecting animal specimens for research purposes with the help of the indigenous groups of Matto Grosso.
During a reflective roundtable discussion, Rosanna Dent provided some useful context about the history and area of Matto Grosso. She noted how approaching the film as an artifact trying to achieve the “authentic travel narrative” reveals much of the intent behind this piece. The back-and-forth between “authenticity” and “natural-ness” of the interactions between both humans and nonhumans was particularly striking to me – as many of the moments with animals could not be entirely staged in the film. Carolyn Fornoff made the important nod to colonialism in the narrative, and Rahul Mukherjee reflected on how human identity is made through various interactions with animals, staged or not in the film. Themes of extinction, creation and captivity (Noah’s Ark), and the difficulties in historicizing racism resonated with the crowd and affected the next day’s conversations.
The next day of the symposium demonstrated the multidisciplinary fortitude of taking animal material in archives seriously. Bruce Holsinger outlined his most recent book project focused on animal skin – parchment – in the archives and his interaction with medieval texts and contemporary scientists to get at the significance of the medium in the past and today. Iris Montero mapped the presence of hummingbird bundles in various types of archival material – making a case for the “pre-Columbian” archive. To her, both memories and myths were materialized in these nonhuman animal artifacts. Animal material, the question of its significance to understanding historical moments, and the question to archivists as to why material is collected and kept resonated in the other talks. Rebecca Woods’s paper on Australian wool samples, Nigel Rothfel’s attention to elephant skins, and the “Materiality” roundtable, including both archivists and researchers, touched on these concerns. We encountered issues of ethics in anthropodermic books, logistics in keeping taxidermy mice, and challenges in cataloging multi-species relationships: as insects and the plants they consumed leave DNA footprints on textual materials.
The last speaker, Neel Ahuja, addressed moments when animals are discussed in documents, and the different ways these moments could be interpreted by historians. His example demonstrated that the implications of such documents were so political in certain places and time periods that it often becomes difficult for the historian to disentangle lived experience from political agenda – particularly when trying to “get at” the animal. The presentation addressed animal welfare issues with milking cattle in late 19th century India, when legal documentation was ambiguous and hesitant to cite methods of milking that were banned based on their cruelty and ineffectiveness. Ahuja made the case of looking at such material with hybridity in mind: the reality of the cruelty in these methods for certain historical actors, and the ban implicating something specific about colonial power and the rationalization of industrial methods of milking over pastoralist ones. Certain human-animal interactions that took place for hundreds of years were suddenly re-contextualized as inappropriate through legal documentation. But these interactions were also rhetorically avoided in the writing; perhaps illustrating a similar experience of getting to animal material in an archive without much written documentation of the life/experience/interactions the body had while still alive.
Harriet Ritvo, who arguably jump-started the animal history movement with her book Animal Estate (1987), provided some helpful closing comments to the event. The two big questions participants seemed to be grappling with included 1) What are animals like? and 2) What are archives like? When historians engage with animals in the archives they are forced to recognize their living qualities. Animals are not just metaphorical, even though we often approach them in this form in writings. Animals are very real, and they were very alive before their bodies were placed in museums, libraries, or universities. When animals are archived today, we see some difficulty in placing material objects within their context – particularly as papers become part of separate archival spaces housed away from their objects of reference. The importance of these material objects – these animal bodies – in understanding the past is something historians and archivists need to keep in mind, and they are sources that are useful, troubling, and fantastic.