By Lisa Griffith
In the last few years I have had a growing interest in photography and working in the national Print Museum has made me think a bit more about the machines that create the historical documents we most use. I used to tell my students at Carlow College that historians are quite unimaginative with their sources- the majority of what we use is the printed or written word, with a smattering of images, and how much can this really tell us about life in the period we are living. I know this can’t be universally applied but often I think as historians we can be quite boring in our sources particularly when we are in a class room. We bombard students with words and often in between they get a few nice pictures or even a political cartoon.
How often can we present them with a description of, for instance, eighteenth-century-dental problems to explain how rudimentary a science it was and that when people had toothaches they were more often than not treated incorrectly which led to all sorts of pain and all sorts of bad moods and knock on effects. Surely something like dentistry was as important to people’s lives then as it is now?
I will have to admit that I did not really engage with medical history when it emerged a few years ago, so I am probably just way behind the curve on this but I have started to think a bit about the processes of change in institutions and practices that are every day to us as well as some and scientific and technical developments (like the camera) to think how they shaped the sources they produced as well as the people who used them. The above image is supposedly of the world’s oldest camera (as well as some random thoughts for a Friday).