The Final Frontier

The 'Singing Cowboy' himself, overseeing my daily research activities as the Viva Foundation Fellow 2015 at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, LA.

The ‘Singing Cowboy’ himself, overseeing my daily research activities as the Viva Foundation Fellow 2015 at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, LA.

Four weeks at the Autry have zipped by in a flash.  And a couple of days ago I gave my ‘Research Frontiers’ lunchtime presentation to co-workers and colleagues at the museum as the culmination of my ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ study.  ‘Research Frontiers’ is a programme of seminars delivered by the various Fellows hosted at the Autry each year and it offers an opportunity for permanent staff to learn about what the temporary visiting scholars have been up to – and celebrate them, their endeavours but, most importantly, the depth and diversity of their own, grand, collection.

I spent a couple of afternoons preparing for my hour in the sun (so to speak), and enjoyed pulling together my disparate notes, scribblings and thoughts into (what I hope) was a coherent whole.  As ever, once I’d summoned my energies and efforts to crank up my laptop (and my brain), the content of my PowerPoint presentation just grew and grew.  It’s not until such moments of enforced review and reflection that one realises just how much archive material has been collected, and noted, and dealt with.  I’ve (almost unknowingly) covered a lot of ground these past few weeks.  What’s more, preparing a seminar is a really useful step in the analytical process because it requires the researcher to take up a new position in their project, having both proximity to and distance from their work.  The close reading, deep focus and utter absorption of solitary days in the archive are usefully punctuated by the ‘going public’ that a presentation brings.  There’s an important shift of gear as one has to serve an external audience rather than a lone, internal, voice.  Putting it another way, having to explain the significance and importance of a ‘find’ or ‘finding’ to make sense to someone else assists, I think, in moving a project along to the next levelIt is, as the saying goes, ‘good to talk’.  My final presentation consisted of 40 slides and mapped out the key themes I’ve been conjuring with these last few days and weeks.  And while there’s a long way to go, those 40 slides present maybe the bare bones, or just the merest whiff, of a more formal piece of writing such as a journal article or chapter.  The exercise certainly got me working with, and using, the material I’ve been busy collecting in the archive.  And that raises an important point about research, particularly of the type with which I’m concerned.  I can ‘slam dunk’ as much archive material as I desire (and by that I mean looking at, and recording, folder upon folder of archive documents and texts: tagging them, labelling them, coding them for future use once I get back to Manchester and my workaday routine).  But it doesn’t really count a jot unless I write up those records and notes into fully fledged, theorised, prose and get my interpretation of them ‘out there’.  Research has to be released from the hard drive, the notebook and the memory card.  And that process of release is the tough part because it requires saying something meaningful, slogging it out at the computer keyboard and running the gauntlet of peer review (among other things).  A dose of courage and conviction is required for this stage of the academic process.  Cups of tea are also very helpful.

Happy memories of California will warm my cockles if the going gets as tough as I suggest above.  For there have, of course, been highlights here at the Autry (or, perhaps more accurately, a small but satisfying inching forward of progress).  These small pleasures add up to a splendid whole.  The leathery smell of Helen Ruth Zeigler’s 1930s cow skin chaps, for example, as I (the first visiting researcher to do so) examined them fresh from the storage freezer.  The gasp-out-loud moment as a dozen tissue-y neck scarves were unfurled, in turn, from their bespoke roller casings, revealing dazzlingly-preserved crimson, orange and gold printed silk.  There was even a glorious moment in the permanent exhibit as I happened upon none other than Champion The Wonder Horse’s bridle.  But perhaps most memorable will be the enthusiasm and encouragement from my Autry co-workers, who provided expertise, kindness and companionship on the long trail through ‘Archive Country’.  And what a pleasant and scenic place that particular country has proven to be this last while.  One of the dude ranch vacation brochures from the Autry collection that I’ve been working on  likened a trip to rural Montana as being ‘Big Medicine’ back in the 1930s.  Some 85 years or so later, my own trip ‘Out West’ has similarly proven a true fillip.