Creating the Georgian Archive

by Karin Wulf

North Stairs in the Round Tower, leading to the Royal Archives Royal Archives /© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Out of the Royal Archives, high up in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, the Georgian Papers Programme is bringing to digital life an extraordinary Georgian collection.  The Georgian Papers are a marvelously rich mix of different types of documents, including letters, account books, menus, and more.  As we hear at gatherings of scholars working with the physical items at Windsor, and as is increasingly evident for anyone using the digitized materials posted thus far in the RA’s online resource, the Georgian Papers are surprisingly diverse in type and topic.  Researchers are always finding something compelling and important, even if not always related to their original area of inquiry.  A surprise might come in the form of an unexpected discovery, leading toward a different research topic, or it might come from wondering about what is not apparent in the collection at all.  As professor of history at George Mason University and OI-GPP fellow Cynthia Kierner noted about her quest to locate information about the royal family and philanthropy, it was curious that something as significant as disaster relief was barely addressed in royal correspondence.  Another scholar exploring the history of fashion noted that the Georgian princesses seemed to spend very little time or attention on their wardrobe, though painters regularly captured them in lavish dress.

The finding and not finding is part and parcel of working in a collection that accreted over a long period and under specific conditions.  The Georgian papers reflect the interests and the circumstances of the individuals who created and used these items in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — the royal family, members of their court, and staff, as well as the infinitely larger number of people around the world whose lives contributed to or were influenced by the decisions and actions taken by the family, court, and staff in England.  Collected together, these papers comprise a wonderful archive we can plumb for insights into a nearly infinite number of eighteenth-century subjects.  But they also reflect, as Felicity Myrone of the British Library recently noted at the GPP fellows’ forum, the structure and forms created by generations of archivists who gathered and organized them.

In other words, to understand what is in the Georgian Papers, it is important to understand their history as an archival collection, and the archive itself.  The Royal Archives itself was only organized in the early twentieth century, and the materials for the period before this were gathered from other locations and brought to Windsor, or in some cases returned to Windsor.  The bulk of the Georgian Papers are from the long reign of George III; the relatively sparse materials for the earlier Georgians, George I and George II, are those that had been collected and maintained by him.  All of these had been found at Apsley House, the home of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, George IV’s chief executor, and deposited at the Royal Archives in 1912.  Since that time, more material has been accumulated both for contemporary and historic periods.  Queen Mary, grandmother of the present queen Elizabeth II, collected samples of early Tudor documents.  The Royal Archives is robust in its collection and preservation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and through projects such as the GPP has been exploring ways to enhance access to its collections.

An archive, dictionaries tell us, is a collection of historical records or documents; professional archivists would add to that definition the significance of the material’s provenance and the role of institutions in sponsoring archives.  But an archive is also, archivists and scholars have been arguing in increasingly sophisticated and detailed studies, a reflection of the society and culture which produces it, and particularly of the most powerful political and economic forces within it.  At the most elementary level this means that archives have regularly accepted, collected, catalogued, preserved and made accessible materials from more powerful individuals, families, and organizations.  Archival collections in the US and the UK, especially for the early modern period, are often predominantly male, white, and elite.  In short, an archive is a repository of priorities.

Scholars have also been showing us how powerful the creation and the use of archives have been in shaping our studies of the past.  Grappling with what materials are collected, how they are arranged, preserved, and made available is enormously important to understanding the role of archives—and of any specific archive.  Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past:  Power and the Production of History (1995) was a landmark study of Haitian history, illustrating the ways that the remnant archives and the historical interpretation of those fragmentary records had long cast the enslaved leaders of its revolution into shadow.  The history that had been archived, Trouillot suggested, was the only history that could be written.  But of course now, following Trouillot and others, the Haitian Revolution and its black leadership has become one of the essential historical events in the era of the Atlantic Revolutions.

In the same vein, generations of historians have been reading in the actual and metaphorical margins of historical materials to find the evidence of the lives and experiences and impact of people marginalized in their own time.  Scholars have advocated for methods of reading against the grain, along the grain, and across the grain of archival texts.  In Along the Archival Grain:  Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (2008), for example, Ann Laura Stoler scrutinized the structure of the Dutch archives of the East Indies as a reflection of colonial governance, urging scholars to study archival organization as carefully as we study individual documents.  By engaging explicitly with the ways that the archival material reflected the needs and interests of Dutch colonial power, Stoler could better explore the lives of women, Dutch and native Indonesians, and the domestic dynamics that implicitly and insidiously advanced the colonial agenda.  Marisa Fuentes’s award-winning Dispossessed Lives:  Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (2016) argues, using seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Barbados as a case study, that to capture the violence of slavery scholars must read the texts produced in the service of slavery; advertisements describing a runaway slave, depicting scarification, must be read for the violence that scar evidenced.

Archives, in other words, need not always serve their original purposes.   The Georgian Papers are the private papers of the monarchy; this extraordinary collection reflects the very center of eighteenth-century Anglo-imperial power.  And yet, the bracing ambition of the Georgian Papers Programme is to take this collection out into the world of the widest possibly scholarly interpretation and public use.  Because I write from the perspective of that empire’s margins, and in advocacy for an Atlantic, indeed global Georgian perspective, it is of course in that interest to suggest its most expansive application.  But the potential for this new Georgian archive is indeed great.

One of the sources of that potential is the new, digital form.  A digital archive is entirely distinct from the material (that is, the paper and ink, bound volumes or loose sheets, in folders or otherwise) archive. By its very nature the mutability of the form creates different kinds of connections between and among the materials that could not be replicated in the analogue version.  While no archive is static, and most have evolved over time, a digital archive can adapt and be reshaped by its users.  As the digital Georgian archive takes shape, through the materials catalogued and placed on the Royal Archives site, and then within a larger digital architecture being developed in conjunction with Kings Digital Labs and then as users begin to explore and exploit the materials, curating their own collections, offering adjacent interpretative and curricular sites, we will begin to see the full flower of its potential.

As scholars, archivist/librarians and the public come together in exploring and creating this new digital archive, we are taking part in work that for generations has shaped the possibilities for access and exploration, but also for historical interpretation and understanding.  And we do this now with both a fresh set of intellectual tools and a collaborative spirit.  We can also in this process be more self-conscious about our own contributions to knowledge production.  As Trouillot, Stoler, Fuentes and others have suggested, archival creation and curation has had a historically significant role in delimiting historical perspective.  The contents and structure of an archive have profoundly shaped what could be known about the past.  To be sure, we cannot have a fully critical vantage on this work as we undertake it, but we can say that the effort is made in good faith, in collaborative enterprise—and with full backing of the archive’s patron, which it turns out is no small thing.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.