RESPONSE #3 Elin Jones
This week, I visited the nineteenth-century ‘travel album’ for the third time, and finally made my way sequentially through all 273 photographs. My meetings with the object have taken me through the doorways of haciendas, picking over the slats of newly built railway tracks, through the freshly painted entrance halls of palatial hotels and guest houses, and down the stairs of tenement housing in San Francisco’s recently established Chinatown. This whirlwind tour through the yellowed impressions of late nineteenth-century America has, however, often left me with a feeling of frustration. This is, I think, largely because of the attempts by myself and others to order or categorize it. As I mentioned in my last post, its identity as a ‘travel album’ within the museum’s collections is likely to oversimplify how and why the object was made. Although the photographs seem to have been collated in order to represent a journey through space, the temporal boundaries of the ‘journey’ are unclear. As was pointed out during my first meeting, the album was probably assembled for the use of a club or society. This has resulted in attempts to understand what ‘type’ of society created the album.
However, as the album sits images of ‘Ancient Idols and Pottery of the Aztecs’ next to archaeological finds, vast geological scapes, and the creation of new bridges and railways tracks, it is difficult to understand where any of the club or society’s interests lay. This has forced me to engage with how we as individuals and how institutions as museums categorize and order objects. It is an almost irresistible temptation to fit things into groups, and in a world where professions and interests are largely grouped through ‘ologies’, it is difficult not to employ an anachronistic gaze when peering into centuries past. The album does seem to be trying to order the world it depicts, however it changes the stylistic and linguistic modes of organization frequently, and flits between numerical description (measurements of bridges, heights of the tallest trees) and fairly dubious ethnographic ordering (notably an ordering of human skull size in one of the photographs from Mexico). The album thus appears after a few meetings to resemble a space of gestation; an antechamber to the interwoven corridors of twentieth century anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, geology, and geography.
However, placing the interests contained within the album as ‘proto’ too simplifies the imaginary worlds of the nineteenth-century photograph collector. It is difficult in any capacity to order objects as they would have been understood in the past, and this difficulty is echoed in museum collections the world over. Our meeting last week with Catherine Richardson demonstrated the ways in which our role as modern observers can be further complicated when trying to envisage what a period of time would have ‘felt’ like. This is however what our visitor this week is engaging with in her project on the ordinary domestic day in early modern England. Catherine’s description of the difficulties and rewards inevitably faced in trying to understand the minute and quotidian rituals of the household in this period enabled us as a group to engage in a lively discussion, framed by the question of how we achieve a ‘sense’ of the past. Objects, movement, imaginings and experiences of space figure heavily in this understanding. Our lack of language with which to describe these issues often increases the sense of distance. However, our talk with Catherine made clear that in order to take any steps on the road towards reducing this distance, we need to integrate the spatial, material, intellectual, and emotional. This is a realisation which has been bolstered by my own PhD research, and which I hope to carry forward in understanding the possibilities of the ‘travel album’, as the mystery behind its intellectual materiality does seem to shroud any understanding of how it may be integrated in to UCL Art Museum.