History, Art History, Documents, Artifacts, Etc.

I admit I was a little disturbed this week by Jennifer Thigpen’s article this week, mostly because of what it implied about history as a discipline: that in order to get a full picture of history, we need artifacts alongside documents– that somehow, documents aren’t enough.

Rationally, of course, I know this to be true, and I knew that before I read Thigpen’s article. I’m working on a 15th century book in Special Collections for another class right now, and less than half of my work has been on what the documents actually say– much more of my time has been devoted to how they organized their excerpts, whose hand wrote which items, what condition the book is in, etc. The picture I’ve been able to draw from it (sorry, I just finished writing my first draft of that paper, and am accordingly a little preoccupied at the moment) has been extensively piecemeal, but it would have been much more so had I only focused on what the documents in the book said, since most of them were copied over from somewhere else in the first place.

Still, I wrote my thesis without ever seeing an actual document that belonged to Woodrow Wilson. I visited his house, sure, and saw a few things that had belonged to him, but nothing that shaped or altered my research in any way. Nor did any of the people who wrote my secondary sources work with artifacts. Were we all wrong, then? Are there things that we all missed because we read Wilson’s writings but didn’t examine his 100+ walking sticks? How far can the discipline of history go while staying with documents, and where exactly is the line between history and art history, anyway? Is there one? Should there be?

As more of a document person than a visual one, I have to believe in the value of documents even without artifacts, and I have to hope that a picture of a person can be created and understood without the artifacts to match. Thigpen is right, of course. Having those artifacts certainly helped. Maybe they would have helped me, too. But I appreciate there being distinctions between the disciplines, however arbitrary they may be–particularly if it’s possible for a balance to be struck somewhere in between history and art history when necessary.

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