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A world to discover: travel memoirs and memorabilia in Trinity College

Viewing other places as a resource to be used. 17th century Journey to Namaqualand (MS 984)

As the students return to College, albeit virtually, the ‘Trinity electives’ are getting underway to entice students to engage with scholarship outside their core disciplines.

These electives are one of the many new developments made over the last few years in how Trinity College seeks to engage its students with wide-ranging scholarship. The University invites students from all disciplines broaden their intellectual experience by encountering ground-breaking research, exploring languages and cultures, or considering key societal challenges. This is possible by choosing a Trinity Elective, a stand-alone 5 ECTS module outside of each student’s core discipline.

Getting inside other belief systems. An 18th century Icelandic natural history (MS 1017).

The Library is most closely involved with the ‘World to discover‘ elective, directed by Professor Anna Chahoud of the School of Histories and Humanities, convener of the priority research theme Manuscript, book and print cultures in the Trinity Long Room Hub. The Library is the repository for many of the materials and artifacts upon which the elective’s teaching is based – from The travels of Marco Polo to unpublished travel journals by female travelers.  Another major contribution the Library makes to this elective is to offer students an introduction to ‘artifactual literacy’ which encourages students to question what information does the physical format of an item give to the observer, beyond the words or images which might be inscribed upon it. This experience encourages engagement with important  issues such as colonialism, and gender; it also supports the development of a critical attitude to information by questioning what might appear to be reliable modes of communication. 

A section of The Koran, removed from the battlefield at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. (MS 1545).

Some of the artifacts which we hope to introduce the students to have already been the subject of blog posts. These include the ‘Shabti’ figures, grave goods from  Egyptian culture which were recently rehoused by the Conservation and Preservation team. Another intriguing item is the diary of a Dublin man named Kenney. This prompts the reader to question what is meant by travel and what is the purpose of map-making. James Kenney appears to have been quite a controlling individual, problematic behaviour which is reflected in his diary. In this journal Kenney can be observed meticulously mapping of walks in the park with his female friend. 

Patrick Corbett (1871-1904): souvenirs from India.(MS 11379)

Issues of gender are introduced in a number of ways. It will not be news to students that women were restricted in where and how they traveled, thereby distorting what we can possibly know of female preferences in this matter. For those who did travel, the differences in what women or men chose to collect as souvenirs can also be very telling. One woman, who collected flowers from the site of the Battle of Waterloo, was chastised by her husband who said this was ‘rubbish’. In contrast, a young man who died in India had his souvenirs lovingly preserved by his family for a century before  they were presented to the Library. 

Gathering information: Maj. R. Hingston’s diary from Mesopotamia, 1915. (MS 10515)

Among one type of travel record that Trinity has are the records of men who traveled abroad in the army, in the 19th and 20th century. Richard Hingston did not cease being a scientist just because he became a soldier and his WWI diaries are illustrated by many drawings, frequently of insects which he found fascinating.

 An issue which is increasingly the concern of curators and users of historical material is the question of decolonizing the archive. At its simplest, this requires attention to be paid to how items originating in various different cultures are described. Examples of such materials are photographs taken of persons who themselves tended not to have access to cameras. The assumed unequal relationship between a person with the camera and the person being imaged must be to the forefront of any evaluation of this kind of material. Lt. Col. Daniel O’Sullivan Beare’s images from East Africa invite this kind of critique; the confident self-presentation of the subject of this image must not be disregarded in such a discourse.

Image of a woman in 19th century Zanzibar. Lt. Col. Daniel Robert, The O’Sullivan Beare (1865-1921). (MS 10404).

We very much look forward to the discussions which we know will be initiated upon introducing elective students to this material.

Dr Jane Maxwell

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