The unexplored richness of archival collections is – at least to me - a never-ending source of delight and amazement. Here’s a great example from Great Britain.
Sir George Scharf (1820 – 1895), the son of German artist George Scharf and his wife Elizabeth Hicks, was born in London and grew up there. Although an artist like his father, Scharf is best known as the “father” of the National Portrait Gallery in London, serving as its first secretary and director from 1857 to 1895. His papers, including his diaries chronicling life at the upper reaches of Victorian London, are now housed in the Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library. It’s a massive collection, described in the introduction to the finding aid as containing “445 volumes, 166 files, 659 items and 6 sets of playing cards”.
Of course, as any archivist will attest, there are never enough hours in the day to thoroughly describe every single item in a large archival collection’s finding aid. So, it came as a great surprise when Krzysztof Adamiec, an assistant archivist working with the collection, began to investigate the contents of what appeared to be an old cigarette case, which had probably not been opened for more than a century.
In it, he found some strips of ancient leather, some wood fragments and some notes containing body measurements, along with a sketch of a human skull by Scharf. Further research in Scharf’s diaries strongly suggests that all this relates to an event Scharf attended in 1871 – the opening of the tomb of King Richard II, who died in 1400, after being deposed by King Henry IV. The leather fragments are likely from the king’s glove and the wood, from his coffin.
More important, however, is the skull sketch and accompanying measurements. Although it would not have been possible in 1871, modern forensic imaging techniques will very likely make it possible to create a reasonably accurate portrait of Richard, the son of the Black Prince and the Fair Maid of Kent.
That, of course, underscores the value of archival collections. It is impossible even for the creators of the collection to know the uses to which the information in them will be put as time goes on. What may seem no more than a curiosity to one generation may become valuable primary source data to the next.