By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
Recently, I had the opportunity to present on visual field notes at Revealing Hidden Treasures: the Smithsonian’s Archives Fair 2012, a day inspired by the month of October--American Archives Month. In case you missed it, here’s a recap:
We’ve talked quite a bit on our blog about the variety of formats that field books may take, including photographs, sketches, maps, correspondence, journals, specimen lists, and more. I wanted to take a moment to discuss why visual field notes are important. Lists and diaries contain information like collector numbers, geographical names, specimen binomials, and all sorts of information for which it’s easy to see the use potential. They can be cross-referenced with the actual specimen labels, or offer missing or supplemental information. But what about visual materials? What can they offer that is useful or unique? Among other things, they can tell us specifically about specimens, the environment, and the collecting event.
Photographs and sketches can give us important information about specimens that were collected or observed in the field. Together, words and sketches can give a fuller, richer description of specimens. As mentioned in a previous blog post, specimens, especially fish, can lose color and pattern information shortly after they are preserved—sketches can relate those details to us. Similarly, images of live or just-collected plants can give us information about the living individual that pressed plants can not. In a world before photography, sketches were critical for illustrating specimens (and also field work and the environment). When photography became more popular, it also became a tool for capturing this information.
Sketches, photographs, and maps can give us important information about the environment surrounding a collecting site; they can, quite literally, paint us a picture of a certain place as it existed at a certain time. We can use photographs and drawings from the field to answer questions such as:
What did the landscape look like?
What species were thriving?
What was missing or scarce?
How has this location changed?
Maps can also give us clues as to what the world looked like at a past time. They can illustrate old routes that existed before modern roads did, and indicate locations where specimens were observed or collected. Some maps preserve information about a past landscape or historical political borders. In a past blog post, Eleonore Dixon-Roche discussed how the landscape has changed since Joseph Rock visited and created his hand drawn maps.
Visual field notes can illustrate fieldwork for us in a way that textual documents simply cannot. Photographs show us what fieldwork looked like. We begin to see things like who was there, how a specimen was obtained, how it was transported, and the cultural context surrounding the collection.
Through images, we get a sense of what it might have been like to be a part of an historical expedition. Images like these speak to us; they illustrate scientific explorations, and communicate to us in a very human way so that we can relate to these past stories. They make it real!