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A lesson from the archive: life is short, so keep it interesting…

August 11, 2011

“May you live in interesting times” is meant to be a curse, but “may you live in eternal boredom” is not greatly preferable. What I really like about my working life these days is that I’m rarely bored. I’m usually busy, sometimes overwhelmed or confused, but rarely bored. This is largely because I really don’t have a typical day anymore. When you juggle three jobs, every day is different.

On Tuesday, I was at the public library: answering questions, welcoming and signing up new members, placing requests, hunting lost books, and trying to pinpoint the source of a pungent and ominous odour which has been mysteriously wafting out of the 5oos for some time, (I love working in public libraries – but strange smells are an all-too-frequent downside).

Yesterday, wearing my self-employed artist’s hat, I created and delivered new stock for my space at InCube8r Gallery. My line of hand-assembled greeting cards are doing well, so I needed to top up the stock. I also had time to do some (necessary) shopping, and as a nice bonus, caught up with a friend for lunch.

Today, acting in my role as Archival assistant, I catalogued many letters written on a Queensland sugar plantation in the 1870s (including one which featured an original squashed mosquito dating from 1871).  I also got to do a bit of conservation “lab work” (in the archives’ kitchen) – carefully unsticking 1870’s envelopes which had re-adhered, trapping the letters inside. I carefully followed the advice given to me by the State Library of Victoria’s conservation advice line on how to do this, and it was very satisfying to successfully release the letters without damaging the envelopes. The other hard part of dealing with letters is deciphering the messy hand-writing, but in this case it is getting easier as I go along. Although the writer’s hand-writing is getting decidedly sloppier as time progresses, I’m also getting to know the quirks of how he writes, as well as getting to know all the names of the family and friends. Drawing the next letter out its envelope is a bit like sitting down to watch a soap opera, (ooh, I wonder what is going to happen on the plantation next? Does Edwin still have a fever? Have they found a good cook yet? Will Frederick stay safely in Kent, or will he be convinced to emigrate to the colonies?)

I feel very privileged to be peering into these lives from the past. While my primary aim is to catalogue the documents accurately and thoroughly so that they can be found and put to good use by researchers, I also feel I have a rare opportunity to learn from the experiences of the people whose lives I get to distantly, yet strangely intimately, observe.

There are three things which have stood out. The first is that death is a fact of life which used to be better accepted. We try to avoid confronting the reality and certainty of death in contemporary Australian society, but in the 1800s that was not possible. Death was not just inevitable, it was frequent and all too common. People had an awareness of the fragility and brevity of life that we too easily forget, and, for good or bad, they seem to deal with death in far more matter-of-fact manner. Reading old letters also reveals the unpredictability of life: illnesses, deaths, changes of career and general changes of plans, and business failures and bankruptcies. Other than death, the only certainly in life is change. Despite this, some things defy change. The third trend, I’ve noticed is that artists, writers and other creative types have long juggled multiple careers. Just amongst the pioneer Melburnians I’ve encountered in the archive so far, there has been a bureaucrat-painter and an etcher-pharmacist who dabbled in poetry, amongst several others.

Life is short and very unpredictable – so it is good to be doing work that I enjoy, and to be leading a life in which I feel as though I’m truly alive. And as a creative type, it seems that chances are I’m going to need good job juggling skills. Lucky I like job juggling.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. David permalink
    August 14, 2011 9:18 pm

    Far from being a curse “interesting” is my favourite word (apart from Tiramisu of course)

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