Magical Marinades and Archival Puzzles: An Interview with Jennifer Wild

The François-Mitterand Library at the Bibliothèque nationale de France
Working in archives requires an archival sensibility. Jennifer Wild talks with Matt Hauske about her experience working in archives, and on the importance of understanding the archive as a space for generating on-the-ground historical perception.

For both seasoned and novice historians, the experience of entering an archive for the first time can be incredibly overwhelming. Too much material to take in, time constrictions, obscure institutional protocols, and bewildering surprises of all kinds conspire against the researcher. For film and media scholars there’s the additional factor that primary materials like celluloid, tape, or other formats are incomplete, unreadable, or irreparably damaged. The charged nature of archival time-space can make research seem difficult, if not occasionally impossible. Yet isn’t this frustration in fact the essence of historical practice, a dream of a presence to the past that always eludes us? And what if we thought of this experience as itself generative of historical perception? Before tacit knowledge sets in regarding what an archive holds and what can and can’t be done there, what kinds of openings are produced? What can the experience of archival work teach us and how, in turn, can we teach these lessons to students?

This past fall in Chicago, Matt Hauske (DePaul University) sat down with Jennifer Wild (University of Chicago) for a conversation about working in archives and developing an archival sensibility. Wild, author of The Parisian Avant-Garde in the Age of Cinema, 1900-1923 (University of California Press, 2015) and numerous articles on the history of modernism, avant-garde filmmaking, and film exhibition generously shared her experience doing archival research around the world, and reflected on the archive as a magical space that enables a certain kind of intellectual production.

Matt Hauske: I want to start really broad. What is an archive?

Jennifer Wild: It’s a really good question. Well, what’s a collection, and what’s an archive? What’s the distinction between someone’s personal collection, or collection of archival materials versus an “archive”? In some cases, for me what constitutes a real archive is an institution and institutionality coming in to both organize and also permit or not permit access. There’s some gatekeeper involved. At the same time, we all have our family archives. We have archives of our own past, scrapbooks, diaries, pictures. And an archive involves the question of “who else wants to look at that?” So the kind of archive we’re talking about is also different from a collection or a personal family archive. A general archive is different in that it actually has an appeal to perhaps a greater population than just, say, a family. But certainly the gatekeeping is part of what constitutes the formality of an archive, or an archive becoming a formal thing.

But you’re also saying that an archive involves a public as well. It automatically generates a public that would like to access it somehow.

It’s interesting: how does one generate a public? I’m not sure an archive generates a public, but it implies a public, it implies that there are materials there that a public—maybe even a very small public or specialized public—wants access to, and that is being preserved by an institution. I’m fascinated with this question of the difference between the collection versus the archive. For example, how someone’s enormous personal collection of books or records is bought by someone else, or they’re donated. The status changes. It’s essentially the same thing, but it’s the placement of them in institutions. I’m thinking here in particular, just offhand, of Theaster Gates buying the Johnson Publishing Archive + Collections, a whole collection of books and issues of Ebony and Jet magazines. The degree to which that archive, which is housed in the Stony Island Arts Bank, is made accessible to the public remains to be seen, but it will likely be more accessible now than when it was held bythe Johnson Publishing Company.  

I like the distinction that a collection becomes an archive when certain institutional practices and agents are involved, including archivists and archival researchers, who are presumably doing archival research in order to present that archive to a public in a particular configuration. There’s a transformation not only conceptually but physically when a collection becomes an archive. Can you think of examples in your own archival work that can illuminate this phenomenon?

I think what’s on the inside of this question is: How does the researcher’s relationship to the material change over time once you get into the archive? You might find one thing and then you continue to work and you find other things which change the meaning of the first thing. How do you connect the archives? Inevitably a historian is going to be working in multiple archives, but it is a strange puzzle to have to think about how archives connect with each other. But that’s the fruit of the historian, to be working in different archives and then to realize there’s a conversation here. The one thing that comes to mind, for me, is working in the Belgian archives of the filmmaker, poet, and writer, Marcel Mariën. I found something in his archives which, itself, demanded archival research and a kind of historicization which is what I think is the most beautiful thing about archival work. You realize that it’s not just those things in the archive, but that those things themselves have stories, and once you unpack those particular stories or historical resonances about the object in the archive then your questions about your subject change. It’s an organic process and it’s constantly a puzzle of how you’re looking at one thing and then if you look at another set of materials in another archive, how that might speak and change.

In the question of what is an archive, it strikes me in your response that there must be multiple answers depending on which position you’re occupying. From the position of an archivist, it’s something to be organized and guarded, or preserved and protected. And from the position of an archival researcher it’s something to be puzzled over, re-organized, and refracted through your own project.


What was your first experience in an archive? Is that what got you started in being a film historian?

I was developing a dissertation project and I had the luck of being hired to teach an intro film course in Paris for the summer to high school students. That was my first experience really going into archives. I was in grad school and had had some training, and I had been working in the microfilm collections of the University of Iowa. I had been doing historical work, but I had never thought of that as archival work. It wasn’t until I went to Paris and was working with this collection of paper materials associated with silent film called the Rondel collection, which at that time was housed at L’Arsenal, a site of the National Library. It was a really important experience for me because it was not only me being in a formal archive, but it was the National Library, and the access is so restricted. You have to know what you want, but you don’t know what you want all the time. So you have to go through a lot of things in order to understand what you’re looking for, or what this particular collection can yield. And it takes time. For me it was a lot about reading and looking at these materials and having to deal with the archivists who wouldn’t let you look at certain things or would make you wear gloves with certain things or being scolded for looking at a book the wrong way. It was very illuminating because it was a very important moment to be around other researchers doing the same thing. In silence! Here, I’d like to bring up Arlette Farge, who wrote the book Allure of the Archives (1989), which is a phenomenology of historical research and of archives. It’s such a fabulous book—in   America she was this unsung historian who was crucial to helping Foucault develop so much of his archival methodology. They wrote books together. Allure of the Archives is a phenomenology of archives, and what I learned in Paris – and perhaps this is a very French thing, but it translates across many different cultures in whatever archive you’re in – archival research is a physical thing. It’s a physical process. The room might be cold. Farge talks about working with gloves on not because she had to wear gloves to handle things but because the archive was freezing. And the materiality of coming into contact with the materials. So, when we talk about the idea of “did something change your opinion of one thing when we’re putting two archives into conversation,” to me, the most important aspect is what changes when you actually see the object? When you’re really right there in front of it, even if it is a mass-produced journal from 1914. There’s something about the materiality of the thing which, for me, places you into a space of thinking and thought in relationship to your questions and the objects that you can’t get in any other way.

The Auguste Rondel Gallery at the National Library

This opens up a few different questions for me about the physicality of archives and your physical presence in them and your physical presence to the object. It puts you physically in that space. When you’re looking at someone’s personal note, and you know someone has actually written those words, the Benjaminian aura is right there with you. So there’s the teleportation or time travel you experience when you’re dealing with the archive. But then there’s the very physical, very immediate now—you’re in an archive and it’s freezing. You’re playing on someone else’s terms and turf. You need to be as creative and open as possible to all the things that are going to be coming at you as a researcher, an academic, almost like a kind of an artist putting things together, but you’re out of your comfort zone. You’re not in your office, or your bed, or on your couch. You’re in a public space, in an institutional space. There are rules here. So, when you go into an archive, how do you prepare? Even down to what you’re wearing, but how do you mentally get into that space of being in an archive, knowing you’ll have limited time with those objects, knowing what you want but also being open to new experiences and finding new things?

And sometimes you don’t know what you want, sometimes this is the first time you’re going through it. Sometimes you have to ask for specific things, like in France.

I’ve only heard about doing archival work in France and it sounds so anxiety-producing.

Once you get the system it’s okay, but it will never cease being somewhat annoying. There could be that one librarian or archivist there who says, “No, you can’t look at that one 1919 book but you can look at it on microfilm.” But, how do I prepare? I always go into an archive with a sense of what’s there and a prioritized list of the call numbers of the things I want to see. I take a lot of pictures when it’s permitted because time is often limited; often archival spaces are only open half a day. You can’t digest everything. I take a lot of notes. It helps to be extremely organized in your notes – putting down the whole call number for every box, then the number of the thing you looked at. It’s tedious but it’s necessary. If you’re taking pictures, if that’s allowed, try to organize those as fast as possible, which is always really hard to do.

Yeah, because you don’t want to let go of the immediate experience of that thing.

Right, but you also want to get through as much stuff as you can, conditions permitting.

After the fact, when the archive closes after half a day, do you go take notes as fast as you can to get down as much as you can about that first impression of the object?

Sometimes. It depends on what I’m doing. One of my last great experiences was in Belgium, and it was at the National Library where part of Marcel Mariën’s materials were held. I really anticipated more oversight and control, and it was really the opposite of France. I walked in, I had been emailing with them, and they just plopped down piles of stuff in front of me and left me alone. So there I was with boxes and boxes and three days. I think what’s so interesting about archival work in this particular kind of circumstance is that your time is limited, you can’t read or digest everything, but you have to be attentive to your intuition. You can’t take a picture of everything. There were many times that I thought, “I knew I should’ve taken a picture of that thing.” Because in hindsight in fits together with something else, or it supports an assertion or another insight. What I like to teach with my students is that it’s a kind of thinking experiment and a kind of thinking space. Archival research provides a privileged space that you have to take advantage of, within the constraints of how much time you have and what your priorities are. There’s a kind of magical thing when you’re really deep in and looking at tons of materials and you know you can’t absorb or record everything, so you have to be really attentive to what your intuition and instinct is telling you. I really believe the archive is a magical space that enables a certain kind of intellectual production.

And that intuition takes years to develop, too. The first time you go into an archive, you’re dealing with so many different pressures: the specific institutional demands of the archive, and then, especially as a graduate student or a PhD student, this is your dissertation you’re talking about. How long did it take you to develop an archival sensibility, to understand how the rhythm was going to be, of going into an archive and being comfortable there?

That first summer was instrumental. I was there the whole summer. I would teach in the morning, and then go to the archive. There were a lot of materials there that have been since moved to another building in the national library system. It was my first foray into developing that sensibility, and a lot of it depended on the level of concentration by the people around me. As I told my students, it takes practice, even if you’re working in a microfilm library held by your local university. How do you look through reels and reels and reels, what do you photocopy, what notes do you take? It’s just time, and allowing yourself to reflect on your question after being in front of those materials for hours. Say I spend four hours in an archive. It’s not that I go home and just write notes, but it’s more a matter of letting it sink in and marinate, because it’s the time that accrues in your unconscious that allows you to develop the skills, intuition, the instincts that allow you to make discoveries. A discovery might not be “no one’s ever seen this before,” but it’s a discovery in relationship to another thing or another question.

It’s more synergistic. What role does the city that the archive is located in influence the way that you access or that your unconscious accesses that archive? Can you think of an archive that’s not in an urban setting that you’ve worked in or that has a different resonance? Obviously, the city is a kind of archive itself. We’re sitting here in a Chicago neighborhood that has multiple eras of architecture, you can see the stratification of things like gentrification and urban renewal. So what are the connections here, and what is it to have an archive in a non-urban space?

I’ve never done research in China or India or Mexico or Brazil, or in places where the institutional support isn’t there, where not a lot of money is spent. France has a very strong sense of itself and its history, and they literally preserve everything that’s ever been published. Every city has their own system and there’ll be specialized collections. For example, Penn State has a collection I’ve been meaning to look at of Jacques Brunius, kind of a minor surrealist playwright. Penn State is a university town, and my question is, how did Brunius’s stuff get there? This may or may not factor into my interest in the end, but it is curious. But what I’m saying about other countries, beyond the States and Western Europe, is that it’s really the culture of the archives that’s built up around the state funding for preservation and their sensibilities around what should be preserved and what shouldn’t that will define your experience in the archive and also define what you find. Because as we know with China there are very few archives from the silent period, for instance.

What influence does the urban setting have on your experience of the archive? Is there a difference between doing it in Belgium vs. in Paris in relation to the environment of the city?

It’s hard to make that exact link, because what I’m saying is that a city or a national culture will have a specific relationship to its past and to its preservation. Paris is fabulous because you can leave Richelieu, which is the part of the National Library where a lot of my materials are held, and you feel like you walk out of a time capsule, because everything’s so hermetically sealed and the access is so controlled and there are so many rules. Whereas, I’ve never done research in Mexico, and I wonder what that’s like. So archives are very much defined by the national, that country or that city’s relationship to their own patrimony and preservation and policies of access. In Belgium they were very happy just to let me rifle through boxes and boxes and piles and piles of personal scrapbooks, trusting implicitly that I was going to be an honest researcher and not steal anything. Going to Penn State is going to be very different than going to Madrid, for instance.

In your undergraduate teaching, do you have undergraduates go into archives? What are practices or assignments have worked for you? Is this something that you encourage, or encourage with a grain of salt? Obviously graduate students ought to be in archives, would you agree?

Well, depends on the project, right?

Yeah, but archives are good for everybody, I think.

I think they are too.

Even if you’re doing a theory project, why wouldn’t you go into an archive and look at the theorist’s papers?

That’s exactly what I tell my undergrads. Even if you’re writing a BA thesis on a theoretical concept, I think it’s always good to have the skills to do archival and primary historical work around your objects. Because you never know how that’s going to affect your theoretical questions, and provide you with different points of view, more information, different kinds of information, that a purely theoretical approach will not allow you to have.


Back to what you were saying before, the culture and the country’s attitude toward their archives will tell you a lot, especially if the archives are housed in the place where the theorist lived.

It’s true, and at the undergraduate level, I’ll say two things. One, my students might never get into an archive proper. But I’m at least trying to convey the importance of primary historical research, which is the first step in doing archival research. However, the second thing I’ll say is that, I have had students who, at some point, received an understanding of the value of historical information and even if they’re working, say, with a kind of feminist theoretical approach to certain things, they identified helpful archives. For example, I had a wonderful student in art history who’s now pursuing a PhD, Jessica Huff. As an undergraduate, she went to the Kinsey archives in Indiana, and looked at their collection of stag films. And that to me was a rare moment to see an undergraduate actually recognize the absolute necessity for her project to make the trek to an archive, to get to know how to do archival work especially with films and not just print culture. That was something that changed her trajectory, changed her life, in terms of being a scholar. So at least in my teaching I try to confront students with the question, “what does it mean to try to track down three advertisements for a film?” Because it opens up the phenomenology of history, or makes them try to get to a place where one can actually fathom history and where the materiality of the history can actually take root.

In the history class at DePaul that I taught, which is film history from 1975 to the present, one of their assignments was to do a reception study of any film that they wanted, from before 1985, so well before they were born. They had to find two advertisements and three—

Yeah, I do the same thing!

I probably stole it from you! And three movie reviews. But there are students who are genuinely trying and having trouble finding stuff that you think should be easy. But there’s multiple intersecting institutional problems. Because there’s the university library, and whatever subscription service they have to whatever newspapers they have, and then there’s the librarian who may not be very experienced with the particular search engine that the students need to use, and then there’s the student who doesn’t know how to find something.

And then there’s the internet, which has way too much and not enough. And it depends on what period you’re working with, because as I have worked for so long between say 1890 and 1915 or 1920, these things are in public domain. Now that I’m moving back more toward mid-century, newspapers are not just there online, so it creates the archival need to go to Paris because I don’t have access. It’s always a puzzle.

The problem of the digital is so present, because, especially with undergraduates, they think that if you type something into Google you’ll be able to find it. And the fact is, you just can’t. But the students that I’ve had do this, when I ask them if they think I should do this again, they just all nod their heads, all of them, because they love it. They discover things that they had no idea existed, they read reviews and tell me, “I had no idea that they didn’t like this movie,” or “I couldn’t believe that they said this about it,” or that the advertisement was really interesting, or the fact that they emphasized this and not that.

Or that it had such a sexist ad campaign at the time.

That is really eye-opening to them. Men and women alike just cannot believe how sexist American culture was, which hopefully lets them reflect on how sexist American culture –


It really lets them see that there’s a continuity between the past and the present, especially the past that existed before they were born, which for most of them, coming into college, they just have no idea about at all, because they’re just so bombarded with contemporary culture.

And you know, I think we both come from the school that says that just doing simple reception research is a foundational tool in either supplying the students with a new historical perspective about their object, whether it’s from 1985 or 1919. But it’s also the gateway drug, if you will, to getting turned on to history. That this work can be done. I think historiography is an exercise in perception.

In empathy, in being a human being, learning about other people, cultures, times, and opening yourself.

Opening your head to making those connections. That’s the first step in thinking, “oh my goodness, there’s a whole world of other materials out there.” I think it’s the first crucial step, I think it’s an essential skillset to have, coming out of any kind of humanistic research-oriented setting. It’s practical but it’s also, to me, about opening up that part of the brain that is about historical perception. They realize that, if they do it earnestly, there’s a whole world beyond their own perception. Even the most theory-headed person in a graduate introductory class, I will have them do the same kind of basic archival historical exploration just to ground something. You might get information from history, from an archival perspective, that actually really transforms your theoretical perspective, or enriches it somehow. And to me this is just something I always want to give my students.

As we close, do you have one object that you found in an archive that gave you an ah-ha moment, maybe an early thing that you discovered or that you were hoping to find and then you found?

Back to my first summer in Paris, I was mucking about in this archive on early French cinema and I was still developing a dissertation project and it was just me being in that archive reading and taking notes. For me, it was that first three months of bathing in the hot bath of the archive and not knowing what I was doing. And then I came across a phrase. It was one phrase, which became the title of my dissertation, and it just transformed everything. But I couldn’t have thought of it, I couldn’t have looked for it, and it probably came in the last three weeks I was working there or something. And then, by that time, everything I had read and had been looking at was kind of saturating my brain, my unconscious, and it was this term, “the cine-mental imagination,” “l’imagination cinementale,” which then became the whole guiding thrust of my dissertation project.

What’s so great is that that experience is not unique. It’s unique to you, but it happens to so many researchers, where they find the one phrase in an archive that becomes the title of their dissertation, or a chapter.

Yeah, and it joins together everything that you’ve been reading and thinking about in a certain way. It brought me to the recognition that I was not going to be doing a transatlantic project but that it was just going to be right there in France, and in Paris especially, and that I was dealing with something that was not purely material, that it was about a kind of esprit, or sensibility of the cinema, what the cinema was giving to people, artists, writers of the time. An imagination, and that was the key, my big discovery. Even if I had read it before, I may have read it the first week I got there but I may have re-read it at a different point and it just brought something together. It’s not just the discovery but it was the time it took to discover it, which then helped me become an archival scholar.

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