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Currents: living history

Colby-Sawyer's Archivist Draws Inspiration from London, Where the Past is Always Present

A journey is about stories – stories of fiction, of discovery, and of history. It is these stories that shape our experiences. Recently, I was able to add another story to my collection when this self-proclaimed Anglophile finally set foot on British soil. Although my whirlwind trip was purely for pleasure and included the usual tourist spots, I couldn't resist putting on my archivist hat now and then during my eight days in the United Kingdom.

The British Library Influences Work at Colby-Sawyer

As an archivist, I have a passion for literature, history and art, a combination that makes London one of the best places in the world for me to visit. One of my first stops was the British Library, Britain's version of the Library of Congress. Located on busy Euston Road, the British Library's holdings reside in a surprisingly modern building that opened in 1998. Among the many collections are manuscripts from Bronte, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Austen, as well as an entire room devoted to the Magna Carta.

It was really quite overwhelming to be in the presence of such treasures. I strongly believe that seeing artifacts brings history to life; this happened for me the first time I saw the Book of Kells facsimile at Boston College; the first time I held Nomar Garciaparra's batting gloves at the National Baseball Hall of Fame; and when I discovered the Daniel Webster letter in the Pillsbury Family papers here at Colby-Sawyer.

The British Library experience created that same feeling, only magnified by a hundred. To see Bronte and Austen's own handwritten manuscripts, and Da Vinci's notebooks – the experience is indescribable.

Having just launched the Archives' new digital library, Haystack, before leaving New Hampshire, I was also interested in any digital efforts that the British Library is pursuing. One of my favorite sites to go to for inspiration is the British Library's Turning Pages. This feature allows a user to flip through a book online just like she would in real life. It also has the ability to zoom in on a page and read transcripts. Visiting the library let me experiment with the software in-house and see how it is meant to function without the hiccups that are often caused by the Internet. I hope, at some point, to integrate a similar page-flipping feature into Haystack, and will continue to look to the British Library and other sites for insight.

After several hours at the library, my husband suggested we move on. But, leaving the British Library did not mean leaving London's intellectual heritage; throughout London I was reminded of the city's rich literary culture. Walking through Kensington Gardens, I passed the Peter Pan statue. A stroll down Baker Street led to #221b, now the site of the Sherlock Holmes Museum; and after wandering Paddington Station we finally found the Paddington Bear statue. And, no trip would have been complete without crossing the Thames to the new Globe Theatre at Bankside or a reflective pause at Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, where such greats as Chaucer, Tennyson, Kipling and Dickens are interred, and countless others are memorialized.

Museums, Archives and the Matter of Provenance

In Bloomsbury, home to the University of London and haunt of Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury Group, is the massive British Museum, a required stop on any London itinerary. The museum holds over seven million objects from all over the world. Entering the galleries from the Great Court, I was immediately confronted with the Rosetta Stone, encased in glass and surrounded by tourists. Later, I stumbled upon the Elgin Marbles filling three large rooms in the west end of the building. Originally, they were part of Athens' Parthenon and removed only in the early 19th century. Both the Marbles and the Rosetta Stone are steeped in controversy; their countries of origin (Egypt and Greece, respectively) have demanded the items be returned. I couldn't help but think about how this controversy relates to my own work.

When donations are offered to an archive, the archivist will consider whether the materials fit into her collection and if there is a more appropriate home for the collection. Much of this decision is based on provenance, a term used both in archives and museums. The term "provenance" is derived from the French verb provenir, 'to come from,' and refers to both the origin of an object and the history of that object's ownership. Many artifacts have been returned to their rightful owners after provenance has been determined, especially items looted by the Nazis during World War II. Provenance, however, is problematic as many museums and private collectors have paid money for the items that rightfully belong to someone else. Materials in the British Museum will continue to raise controversy as the debate continues over the rightful home of artifacts.

In Flanders' Fields

First published Dec. 1915

In Flanders' Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' Fields.

- Col. John McCrae

A Day of Remembrance

On the morning of Nov. 11, we headed to Whitehall to watch the daily Horse Guards parade only to find it had been cancelled. Instead, we found ourselves taking part in the national commemoration of Remembrance Day, the British equivalent of Veterans Day, and the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. The public, British officials – including the Queen and the Prime Minister – and dignitaries gathered to remember those who have served their country.

At eleven o'clock (the hour the Armistice was signed at the end of World War I), the striking of Big Ben marked a two-minute silence followed by the sounding of trumpets and the laying of wreaths. To mark the 90th anniversary of Armistice, the surviving British veterans of World War I also participated in the ceremony. My husband, a U.S. Navy veteran, commented that the experience and respect was completely different than in America, where Veterans Day has become more about consumer sales than honoring veterans.

In the U.K., people wear a poppy on their lapel as a symbol of remembrance. The common field poppy grew thick on the sites of battlefields at the end of World War I because soil disturbances caused by trenches and shellfire produced ideal conditions for the poppies to grow. The symbolism of the poppy has grown to represent all wars fought, not just World War I.

Leaving Whitehall, we walked over to Westminster Abbey, where we saw a large display of poppy memorials. Inside, at the end of our tour, we approached the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and found it surrounded by poppy petals and wreaths.

Every museum we visited had poppy pins in the lobby that could be purchased for a donation. Toward the end of our visit, we visited the Imperial War Museum where an exhibit was running entitled, “In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War.” This exhibit combined images, artifacts, and personal letters to tell the story of World War I.

At the beginning of the exhibit was a section dedicated to the remaining survivors of the war, the same survivors we had seen earlier in the week at Whitehall. It was an emotional viewing. I sat in the exhibit hall watching children follow their parents and teachers through the exhibit, many more interested in getting to the James Bond exhibit, and was reminded that soon there will not be anyone left to tell these veterans' stories firsthand, and that it is more important than ever that we maintain our cultural heritage so that history is preserved and remembered.

Returning home, I made my own poppy pin that I plan to wear every Veterans Day as a vivid reminder of a journey that brought the past alive in the vibrant, literary, historic landscape of London.

- Kelli Bogan, Colby-Sawyer College archivist