Today’s prompt was about finding something. Sounds easy, right? But I couldn’t think of anything related to that topic that I actually wanted to write about, until I realized that the act of discovering things is a huge part of my job as a scholar and researcher. In fact, it was the feeling of discovering something that no one else had ever come up with before – an idea, a connection, a theory, etc. – that made me want to be a researcher in the first place. I love the idea that once I become passionate about a topic, do my research, follow my instincts, and come up with theories, I can end up make connections in a way that’s different from what has been done before but might impact someone going forward. I completed my first original research project as a sophomore in college, and that’s when I became hooked (for lack of a better term) on the excitement you get from finding some little piece of art history all on your own. So much of writing my thesis was fueled by that very same idea. Like any other large-scale writing project or substantial piece of original research, writing a thesis, even at the undergraduate level, can be difficult, frustrating, and exhausting. One of the main things that kept me going was the idea that I was adding something new to the scholarly record about my subject. I was discovering nuggets of information and putting them together in a way that was new, meaningful, and completely my own. Strangely enough, one of the things that I struggled with most during my thesis experience was the fear that I wasn’t discovering, hypothesizing, or conveying anything important enough to warrant the work I was putting in, but that may well have just been my own insecurities talking.
While being a key component of what attracts me to research and writing on the academic side of things, this sense of discovery isn’t limited to the scholarly realm. In my work as a freelance researcher, I make discoveries every day. They are often small and simple, like successfully locating auction records for an obscure work of art. Other times, discoveries can feel very significant even if they aren’t exactly paradigm-shifting. Early in my career, I was tasked with writing a catalogue description for the discharge paper of an African-American sailor in the Union Navy during the American Civil War. The sailor was young, unskilled, and served a mere year or two on a decommissioned ship being used as a hospital or barracks. I searched and searched, but I found absolutely no information about this young man anywhere. Even a database recording African-American sailors in the Union Navy listed nothing for him. Eventually, I realized that I quite likely held in my hand the only remaining record of this man’s participation in the war. I had found out absolutely nothing about him during my research, but in its own way, that led me to discover how special this single sheet of paper was. Believe it or not, that realization made for quite an affecting experience. I don’t have any particularly-fascinating story about finding something, but I do have tons of small stories, because the experience of discovery itself is an integral part of why I do what I do as an art historian.