Introduction: Visual Collections as Historical Evidence
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Introduction: Visual Collections asHistorical EvidenceKaty LaytonJonesPublished online: 18 Mar 2010.
To cite this article: Katy LaytonJones (2008) Introduction: Visual Collections as HistoricalEvidence, Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 24:2, 105-107, DOI:10.1080/01973760802042606
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Introduction: Visual Collections as Historical
This special issue of Visual Resources is offered as a response to the changing status of visualcollections as historical evidence and explores the potential challenges and opportunitiesfacing those who use these often undervalued resources. The intention is to make asubstantial contribution to emerging debates surrounding the potential uses and accessibilityof visual collections for the purposes of historical research. It also aims to redress the currentimbalance between visual sources and more traditional documentary, statistical and verbalevidence as employed by academic historians.
Keywords: Visual Collections; Imagination; Cultural History; Digitization; Illustration;Cataloging; Access
Visual material has long been treated as a secondary consideration, a luxury that
embellishes rather than underpins historical arguments. In 1988, Roy Porter
challenged the academic community to engage with visual material on a more
sophisticated level and develop the framework necessary to interpret the significance
of visual signs.1 Yet, twenty years later, Porters challenge remains unmet, and
documentary, verbal and numerical evidence continues to enjoy superior status in the
established fields of economic, social and political history. The range of subjects and
audiences for historical research has broadened over recent decades. However, the
role of visual material continues to be primarily illustrative. In an age defined by the
diversity and sophistication of its visual culture, a superficial engagement with visual
collections is no longer defensible.
Previously, one of the greatest inhibitors of visual scholarship was the
inaccessibility of many collections, particularly where the material was poorly
cataloged or considered too fragile to handle or photograph. Where photographic
reproduction was possible, the cost of high-quality imagery made the dissemination
of such material prohibitively expensive. Hard-copy catalogs were costly, as well as
complicated to compile, and seldom incorporated any visual imagery. These issues
combined to ensure that even those who sought to enrich their research with visual
material found the initial task of identification and location disheartening and
unfruitful. Consequently, many collections of ephemeral or fragile visual material
have, for decades, passed under the radar of academic history. In recent years, the
issue of identification and accessibility has been tackled and, in some instances,
conquered by the arrival of electronic cataloging, online access and digital publishing.
Visual Resources, Volume 24, Number 2, June 2008
ISSN 01973762 # 2008 Taylor & Francis
With digitization, the problems of identification and access can be overcome, but
only through ongoing cooperation between the academic community, archivists and
The outlook for such a collaborative approach is good. In recent years, the
academic community has witnessed the expansion of cultural history, a sub-
discipline that enables an interdisciplinary approach and so permits a heavier reliance
upon visual evidence than that tolerated in the more traditional historical disciplines.
Peer-reviewed journals and academic series have been established to serve the
increasing interest in cultural themes and innovative methodological approaches to
under-exploited material.2 Understandably, much of the research hitherto published
under the broad heading of cultural history focuses upon genres of visual imagery
closely associated with traditional verbal and printed evidence. Historical prints,
newspaper illustrations and caricatures have emerged as particularly popular spheres
of research as scholars seek to unite existing critiques of verbal printed material with
the illustrations that accompanied them.3 Yet, rather than enabling the integration of
visual imagery into the established canon of historical evidence, the creation of the
distinct field of cultural history has potentially distanced visual collections further
from mainstream historical research. For the most part, the academic community
remains suspicious of awarding visual material equal status to traditional text-based
evidence, preferring instead to concede that visual imagery is fundamentally more
fictionalized, and therefore less credible, than the written word. Rather than elevating
the status of visual collections, this concession merely serves to reinforce the
perceived fallibility of visual material as a reliable and fruitful historical source.
Many of the following articles were first delivered at a conference in October
2006 entitled Getting the Picture: Using Visual Collections as Historical Evidence,
organized by Craig Horner of the Peoples History Museum, Manchester, England,
with the assistance of David Stewart from the University of Central Lancashire,
Preston. The panels brought together academic historians, heritage professionals and
curators in an attempt to identify the strengths and weaknesses of existing models for
managing, cataloging, researching and citing visual collections. Throughout the
conference a number of questions recurred, each of which indicated potential
improvements to existing curatorial and research practices: How can the burgeoning
number of virtual collections be cited and accredited equal status to the physical
objects they replicate? To what extent should the class marks attributed to visual
collections be standardized across institutions to permit comprehensive and
intelligible referencing? How can the issues of agency be resolved for unattributed
ephemeral imagery? These questions represent merely a few of those explored in this
special issue and serve only to indicate the scale of the challenge facing curators,
archivists and historians of visual collections in the twenty-first century.
KATY LAYTON-JONES is a Research Associate at the University of Liverpool and
Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester.
Having completed a PhD in British history at the University of Cambridge, she is now
engaged on an ESRC-funded research project examining the historic significance of
urban parks and open spaces. A visiting lecturer at City University, she has recently co-
edited New Perspectives in British Cultural History (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, 2007) and is the Reviews Editor for Urban History. Her forthcoming
publications include Places of Health and Amusement (Swindon: English Heritage, 2008);
and The Synthesis of Town and Trade: Visualising Provincial Urban Identity 1800
1851, Urban History 35, no. 1 (2008).
 Roy Porter, Seeing the Past, Past and Present 118 (1988): 186205.
 See Cultural and Social History; Visual Resources; Victorian Literature and Culture;
the Studies in Popular Culture series published by Manchester University Press;
and the Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories series introduced by Cambridge
University Press in 2004.
 Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (London:
Atlantic Books, 2006); and Cindy McCreery, The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in
Late Eighteeth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). [See Laura
Baudots review of Gatrell on pp. 2017 in this issue.]