The art of reading archives

I’m in the Museum Library peering at a page of squiggly lines. Gradually I get my eye into it and a window into the 1800s opens as I read about famous discoveries, precious family heirlooms and the relics of Scotland’s past collected by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Extract related to the discovery of the Lewis Chessmen in Minute Book 1827-1840
Extract related to the discovery of the Lewis Chessmen in Minute Book 1827-1840.

But who am I and why am I reading this?

I’m Julie and I’m a postgraduate researcher working on a collaborative project with National Museums Scotland and the University of Glasgow which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Find out more about the project here.

Julie Holder in the Research Library of National Museum of Scotland next to the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland © Julie Holder
Julie Holder in the Research Library of National Museum of Scotland next to the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland © Julie Holder.

I am researching the relationships between collecting, representing and writing about the Scottish past during the period 1832-92, particularly through the Society’s activities. This involves comparing the archives and publications of the Society and its members to analyse how ideas on the Scottish national past influenced the development of the collections, museum displays and written history.

To do this I am looking through letters, catalogues, minute books, the Proceedings of the Society and much, much, more. I started delving into the archives this January and I have discovered that I am learning the art of reading archives!

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the Research Library which is open to the public © Julie Holder
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the Research Library which is open to the public © Julie Holder.

Reading archives is like seeing pictures within patterns. You may have visited the Celts exhibition last year, where the museum displayed objects decorated with patterns that had hidden animals. Like me, you may have had to squint and focus on the various swirls before the image jumped out at you. This is just like reading the Society Minute Books! I start by squinting at the scrawled handwriting, work out a few words, then suddenly, a switch seems to turn my eyes on and the words become clear.

Filigree detail showing a hidden animal on the Hunterston Brooch
Filigree detail showing a hidden animal on the Hunterston Brooch.
Minute Book 1827-1840 Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
Minute Book 1827-1840 Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

I am then immersed in antiquarian Edinburgh. I find out who was put forward for membership, what objects were donated and what talks were presented. I read about the discovery of the Lewis chessmen, a snuff box exhibited that Bonnie Prince Charlie gave to someone’s grandfather just after the battle of Culloden and the donation of a candlestick purported to have been used by Robert the Bruce. Then disaster strikes! The handwriting changes and my eyes switch off so it’s all squiggly again! Luckily it doesn’t take long to switch to the new handwriting and off I go again.

Lewis Chessmen in 1892 Catalogue
Lewis Chessmen in 1892 Catalogue.
Lewis Chessmen
The Lewis Chessmen.

I have only just started my journey of discovery and I hope to find many more interesting glimpses into how the Scottish collections developed. You can follow the project on this blog and discover the countless fascinating stories held in the archives of National Museums Scotland.

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