On curiosities and letters
Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘On Curiosities and Letters’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/on-curiosities/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.
1. The original cabinets (or even rooms) of curiosities held objects whose categorical boundaries, and so whose definitional and ontological being, were not yet decided. They formed someone’s collection, but except for this were not ‘a set’ but instead diverse objects of different kinds gathered under the heading of the wondrous and the curious. Representations of them look interesting, quite glamorous and, yes, curious and wondrous. But they lack a certain something. This is dirt, dust, and yet more dirt; scruffiness in their appearance, and the dust of ages in their contents.
2. The archival equivalent is not the glamorous gleaming treasures of the most famous representations of cabinets of curiosities. It is rather the towering piles of archive boxes, boxes which the workers in these places have eked out to them, usually one at a time. These have contents that may fascinate the delighted mind, but their dusty proofs of ageing also scour the hands, grit the eyes, dirty the clothes and hair.
3. Their contents also contain dust in the sense of detritus, the emptied contents of pockets, files and desks as the slowly engulfing ashes of the Vesuvius of time have covered them over. How do these strange objects relate to each other? Who did they belong to and how did they use them? Who wrote what and why? How does any of it relate to the clear formalised certainties of published historiography? And, more than anything, just what ARE they?
4. The WWW cabinet of curiosities brings together under its encompassing title all manner of letters. It includes the curious, the not yet known, the dubious, the frankly false. They enable questions to be asked – and answers to them neither assumed nor prefigured, but explored. Who do letters from the past belong to? How to understand the ‘I’ of letter-writing? Under what circumstances does something stop being a letter and become something else? Are there other forms of writing that have all or most of the features of letters? And the questions continue.
5. Its contents are also hopefully to be enjoyed. The examples discussed in depth in these essays are ones that range far and wide, from specific documents to entire collections to speculative thinking about letters and writing, to even more speculative thinking about the strange business of trying understanding the past and things that happened in it.
Last updated: 15 October 2017