History: The Story Starts with the “Stuff”

by Caitlin Ballotta, June 25, 2012

Thomas Whittemore, Founder of the Byzantine Institute

This summer, I am working as an intern in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) here at Dumbarton Oaks.  As you may have guessed, ICFA is home to images; however, its vast stores further hold a treasure trove of other materials relating to Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and garden and landscape studies, including moving films, maps, manuscripts, notes, and nearly any type of paper record imaginable. Over the past few weeks, I have tried my hand at processing one of ICFA’s many collections, learning the “ins” and “outs” of archiving through close interaction with a “paper trail” that documents the archaeological activities of Thomas Whittemore (a colorful and enigmatic character, active in the early half of the twentieth century, who can best be described as an English professor-archaeologist-jetsetter-philanthropist) prior to his founding of the Byzantine Institute in 1930.

Examining folder contents in order to revise the collection’s finding aid

I am currently revising a finding aid, or a tool that will serve as a point of access to this collection for future researchers.  My task, then, is to understand the context surrounding the materials entrusted to ICFA in order to catalogue and arrange the individual items in a logical order that simultaneously preserves the integrity of the collection itself and the way in which it was created.  In short, I am working to make collection contents utilizable so as to facilitate scholars’ and visitors’ research experience.  (In some cases, however, an archive’s holdings are too extensive to allow each and every item to be documented on a finding aid, and researchers can (re)discover some rather fascinating gems as they sift through the contents of acid-free boxes and folders!  Take, for instance, this wonderful piece by Suzanne Fischer that appeared in The Atlantic last week.  In it, she wrote of one researcher’s “chance” encounter with a piece of Lincoln lore.)

Shelves of Archival Materials in ICFA

I can’t begin to express what a privilege it has been to immerse myself in history through the archival process.  Reading original correspondence and examining notes and drawings made by the very subjects of my research have made the past come alive for me—have opened a gateway into history in a way that no passage from a textbook can mimic.  When I delve into a collection, it is as though I am communicating directly with the players who once inhabited the narrative I am striving to comprehend and convey.  Just think:  Housed within an archive’s myriad rows of storage containers, protected from the elements, are the components of a great many stories.  History is, after all, a retelling of past events, and its anecdotes have to originate from somewhere…  For me, then, an archive is a space teeming with life; it is a place devoted to preservation in which an individual can touch—can interact with— those well-catalogued items that help us to construct the ever-evolving historical narrative that shapes our present.

What is next for me, you ask?  I will soon begin designing an online exhibit relating the early activities of Thomas Whittemore.  I certainly hope that everyone will come to appreciate Mr. Whittemore as I have over the past few weeks.  Below is a sneak peek…Stay tuned!

Thomas Whittemore and George D. Pratt bring relief supplies to Russian and Bulgarian monks living on Mount Athos, 1923

About Me:

I am a rising junior at Harvard College, and I am concentrating in English while pursuing a language citation in Spanish.  How did I become interested in archiving?  In part, I attribute my obsession to National Treasure.  However ridiculous it may sound, the movie’s protagonists showed me that history is a plotline that is just waiting to be uncovered, written, and perhaps even revised.

9 thoughts on “History: The Story Starts with the “Stuff”

  1. Caitlin- this sounds amazing! I hope you enjoy every minute! I wish I was still young enough to do something like this. I completely agree with you on the National Treasure inspiration, everything has a story and it is fascinating and awesome that you are helping preserve thise stories! I am so proud to know you!

  2. Thank you both so much! I’m really enjoying my time here at ICFA and am so happy to be a part of this project.

  3. Pingback: Digitization: Handling the Past with Kid Gloves | Dumbarton Oaks Interns

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  5. Pingback: A Not-So-Private Investigation: ICFA’s Oral History Project | Dumbarton Oaks Interns

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