As part of our mission to undertake research on the Society’s Collections and to make them more accessible, we have awarded 10 Wiley Research Fellowships for 2020-21.
Every month are speaking to two of our Research Fellows to find out more about their projects.
Dr Emily Hayes’ (Oxford Brookes University) project is titled (Un)commonplace knowledge: geographical relativity in the fin de siècle, and Sandra Hayward (independent researcher) is looking at low-latitude historical aurorae in her project Hidden treasures: low-latitude historical aurorae and their relevance to future space flight. We caught up with them to discuss their research, why they applied for the Fellowship and what they’re hoping to find in the digital archives.
How did you come to be interested in your current research?
Emily Hayes (EH): My current research will attempt to bring together elements of my doctoral, postdoctoral and more recent research into book form. I have been reflecting upon the relationship between geography and relativity for some years. This interest connects to deeper-running threads throughout my undergraduate studies in archaeology and anthropology, my MSc in archaeology and environmental sciences and professional work in the art world where I catalogued a range of historical printed materials, and worked as a Junior Specialist in Modern and Contemporary Prints and Multiples and as a Map Specialist. My upbringing and education in the UK, Hungary and France and early exposure to 19th and 20th century travel writing may also have contributed to the formation of my interest in comparative historical geographies of relativity.
Sandra Hayward (SH): I have always been interested in the natural world, which is why I became a geologist, studying the history of the Earth. More recently when I studied human history at university, I connected with 19th century diaries of travellers who wrote of their experiences, including the wonder of auroras. One entry, from a British traveller staying near the tiny settlement of Perth Australia in 1838, described a yellow aurora at 3.00am in the morning. An aurora seen in Perth, that far north of the southern magnetic pole? A yellow one? Most aurora photos we see of the aurora borealis or ‘northern lights’ are of ethereal green wisps of moving light in far northern Scandinavia or Canada. My curiosity took over and I investigated further.
I found that there are an array of academic papers detailing historical auroras, a part of the study of space weather, which is important for protecting our Earth-based internet and electronics. There were few documented examples of auroras seen in the lower latitudes in these literature surveys, especially the Southern Hemisphere which has less land mass for peoples to live on and see auroras there. One comment which was made a few times was that the low latitude auroras were rare and that no confirmed sightings have ever been made close to the equator, apart from the well-known sighting during a James Cook expedition in the 1770s.
So, why are low latitude auroras of importance?
Acting out of pure curiosity, I searched internet-based diaries, ships' logs, published expedition accounts etc, and found two occurrences of the aurora being at or very close to the equator which were not listed in the space weather literature, as well as references to Australian Indigenous stories of auroras throughout Australia. I wondered what else might be out there in the archives and repositories around the world, which I could not access due to the tyranny of distance and COVID-19 restrictions.
What made you apply for a WDA Research Fellowship?
EH: The remote access to the (near) entirety of the Society’s and other exceptional archives (the RAI, BAAS etc) and collections that are of global significance, including images and maps, will be, and already has been, invaluable.
SH: I saw the WDA Research Fellowship as an opportunity to continue this passion of reading the accounts of past peoples’ lives and seeing what they thought was important to document in their writings and drawings. The vast array of hundreds of years of diaries, manuscripts, expedition descriptions, maps, and drawings available in the RGS-IBG archive available through the WDA Research Fellowship is a treasure-trove of information just waiting to be accessed.
How does your project sit within your wider research interests?
EH: This project builds on the fundamental idea of my PhD with the University of Exeter. It will seek to locate an emergent discipline and discourse concerning physical and cultural relativity and relativism in late 19th century British institutional and academic geographical practices. Existing research has yet to draw connections between work being carried out on this at different institutions and across different disciplines (such as then-closely related disciplines like anthropology, physics and philosophy). My study will start to undertake this, alongside considering transnational perspectives.
SH: This research is unique within my portfolio, as my other research interests are the development of mineral deposits, as well as 19th century pursuits.
My research during my Masters degree looked at the epitaphs and symbology of gravestones in 19th century cemeteries in East Perth, Western Australia, and documented what it told us about the peoples’ attitudes to life and death, as well as what the cemeteries told us about socio-economic conditions of the town. My more recent research is comparing and contrasting 19th century cemeteries between the different Australian states. I am also interested in 19th century women and their changing role during that century.
My ‘day job’ as an oral historian is just as engrossing: I talk to people about their lives, influences in their lives, and their memories of specific places or times. Everyone has a story to tell, and I have been privileged to be involved in some biographies.
What are you hoping to find in the digital archives?
EH: Engagements with archives and collections should be undertaken with an open mind to avoid simply confirming one’s own biases and expectations. I may contribute some novel insights into how, across the 19th century, geography became a human, or social, science; the kindling, and significance, of historical geography to the broader discipline; and how geography remained and solidified as a wide-ranging discipline bridging what have been perceived as diverse human and physical topics, compared to other science and humanities disciplines which specialised in certain areas. Some light may also be cast on the influence of geographical teaching, practices and materials on related disciplines of anthropology, physics and philosophy.
SH: I was hoping to find accounts of auroras, and actual descriptions and have been overwhelmed by the number of references to auroras, and grateful that the archive is easily searchable by date, resource type, keyword and so on. To date, I have found two new descriptions of sightings in the Southern Hemisphere at low latitude, which is very exciting. I am also finding gorgeous drawings and beautiful maps, which I can look at and follow, whilst reading the corresponding diary of someone who is walking through southern Africa or central Australia. Whilst this pursuit is not the instant visual media of today, the archival material evokes a feeling of being there, and gives a peek into understanding the isolation and drive of people who lived and sought to explore in our past.
Find out more about our Wiley Digital Archive Research Fellowships.
Find out more about research on our Collections.