Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2021

DURA and Hawkins Fellows study archival objects

By MEDHA KALLEM | October 24, 2019

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 COURTESY OF ALLISON SEYLER

DURA recipients and Hugh Hawkins Fellows discussed their work in a panel presentation.

What is the relevance of a seemingly obscure collection of archival objects at Johns Hopkins in an age of growing technological prowess? This past summer, five students, funded by the DURA and Hugh Hawkins Fellowships, were able to delve into their interests in a multitude of topics ranging from the book objects of Italian Futurists to Tuberculosis in Baltimore. 

What unites such a wide variety of research interests? Each of these students was able to utilize the archival collections of the Sheridan Libraries, Peabody Archives of the Arthur Friedheim Library and Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives to conduct their research. The use of archival objects, as opposed to modern digital media, allowed for a richer experience for each of the fellowship recipients. 

Michael Harper, a sophomore, focused his research on Italian Futurism and the work of Dadaists. These movements saw the potential of utilizing words as a visual medium. The Futurist and Dadaist movements focused on manipulating the medium in a way that allowed the audience to interact with it in a novel way. One of the creations from these movements was the book-object, which altered the orientation, texture and typography of text to create a richer meaning utilizing the same page as a traditional book. This is why the use of archival objects at Hopkins were so valuable to Harper’s research project. Harper explained how using digital scans, for example, could not have provided as rewarding of an experience as interacting with the physical objects themselves. 

“Looking at the material requires you to interact with it. The artists were putting the interaction of the reader or viewer with the object into question,” he said in a panel discussion following the presentation. 

Another recipient of the DURA grant, Heidi Hansen, recognized a similar value in the archival collection here at Hopkins. Hansen’s research focused on Book of Hours of the French middle-class in the 15th century. Her research attempted to gain a deeper understanding of the value of Book of Hours in the French laypeople’s lives. She explained how physically interacting with these objects gave Hansen an experience that could not be simulated with digital media.

“I’m thinking about questions of how they were used as objects by the people who owned them and how they functioned in peoples’ lives. Actually holding the book like the people who owned them did and flipping through them and seeing the pages was really beneficial,” Hansen said in a panel discussion following the presentation.  

Utilizing the Hopkins collection also provided Hansen with primary sources, opposed to conducting her research through secondary literature. She believes her research is much more developed because she was able to observe the evidence herself. 

Margot Peyton, who employed autopsy reports to conduct her research, described how physically interacting with these reports made her feel closer to that human being in a way. Her use of the archives, instead of other media sources, also fueled her research with a great depth of diverse resources. Her research focused on Arnold Rich, an American pathologist, who used the inherent physiological differences between patients of African American descent and patients of non-African American descent to explain the pathological differences of tuberculosis that were observed in the autopsy reports. 

Her use of archives gave her access to a multitude of writings, such as notes taken in preparation for lectures or casual correspondence, that she wouldn’t have had access to elsewhere. Due to the nature of these writings – they were not written to be published – allowed Peyton to receive greater insight into the personality and thought process of Rich that shaped his theories of medicine. 

This idea tied into the research of graduate MD/PhD student Michael Healey, whose research centered on the treatment of Schizophrenia at the Phipps Clinic from 1917-1933. Healey discussed how the documentation at the clinic was so regimented that it affected his understanding of the information and the patients 80 years later. 

“I’m trying to learn about these patients and it’s all filtered through not only the psychiatrist’s words but the way keysort card was structured,” he said. 

Mofan Lai, a graduate student at Peabody, had a remarkably different experience with his research project. Lai focused on determining the composition of the international students at Peabody since 1950. He used commencement programs to develop a list of names, degrees obtained and country of origin to develop his roster. Lai commented on how working with these names strengthened his personal ambition and confidence in developing his own musical career.

“When I saw those familiar names of musicians and familiar opera houses that are so related to Peabody, I felt like Peabody has been preparing us for a great musical future,” he said. One of Lai’s ambitions is to publish his roster online so other Peabody students can feel a similar sentiment of encouragement and strength.

The work of these students may influence future research projects that are conducted not only at Johns Hopkins, but other universities as well, since their findings are shared among the scholarly community. For example, another research project on the Homewood campus is centered on the impact of African American experiences as students at Hopkins. One of the guiding documents for this project is a research paper that was written by a past Hopkins undergraduate who studied a similar topic 15 years ago.          

This research is also sparking questions that influence the way research will be conducted in the future in the medical field. Peyton’s presentation, for example, argued how truth was socially constructed and then filtered through experiences. This has consequences in the medical field because current research is often still shaped by the flawed logic that was common in historical medicine. How should the medical community address this problem? Research similar to Peyton’s exposes some of the flaws that occur in research conducted in the medical community. 

Peyton later discussed how it is important for medical students to encourage questions that deconstruct the analyses that are provided in lectures or cases that are cited as evidence for specific medical practices. These race and sex-based differences in medicine, that have previously been accepted as truth, now need to be questioned at a deeper level to truly understand the cause of the differences found. Medicine is a continually adapting field, and as society progresses, it is necessary that medicine progress as well. However, it may be necessary to first look into the past to unearth potential biases that have been long accepted in medical research.

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