Over the next few weeks, I am focussing my attention on the lifejacket and am using a residency period at Aspex gallery in Portsmouth to investigate this iconic object with fresh eyes.
Having accumulated several contemporary lifejackets which in colour, shape and context are already familiar even to the likes of non-seafaring me, I arranged to visit the archives of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in order to find out a bit more about historical lifejackets.
On and off over the years, I have spent a fair amount of time in archives. They are environments that I find thrilling to be in. I get a kick out of the systems of categorisation, the infinite narratives crammed into tiny spaces and the hushed ambiance. I like the fact that in these places history is cared for. The archivists I have met along the way are not guards but guardians and are extremely happy when you express an interest in engaging with their collections. This reinforces to me that the past is not a place to remain unquestioned and revered but rather a source of enquiry and reinvestigation in order to inform and understand what and who we are in the present.
Until now, my research experience has been concentrated on newspapers, film, video and photographs so visiting an archive of three dimensional artefacts was especially exciting. Kate Braun, curator of the artefacts collection, had identified three lifejackets representative of their respective time periods for me to look at; one from 1915, and two others from around 1950 and 1970 (see below in chronological order).
Undertaking research is detective work. Sometimes, often much further down the line, you know what you are looking for and can hone in precisely on the specifics. At the start however, you are a bit blind and reliant on accumulating as much information as possible in the knowledge that instinct will later start processing these findings. You have to keep open minded and absorb as much as you can; noting, drawing and photographing everything in the knowledge that its significance will become apparent at a later date. Engaging with the archival resource is an adventure.
Read more about my findings on the next blog post – Lifejackets of the 20th Century: Part One.