Guest Post: Research in Germany

Our fall research abroad blog post comes from Victoria S. who is spending this year at the Hanne Darboven Foundation in Hamburg. Thanks Victoria!

Big or small, in a museum, at an independent archive, in some gallerist’s friend’s basement, archives all have their own advantages and disadvantages, their own idiosyncrasies you won’t be able to pre-plan for, and just have to figure out once you get there. I’m doing most of my work this year at the Hanne Darboven Foundation in Hamburg. It’s pretty small. There are maybe 4 or 5 people here on a daily basis. Darboven died recently (in 2009), and they’re still working on archiving and conserving originals from her house and moving it into their fancy basement storage system. There aren’t yet hoards of graduate students knocking on their door. One of the nice things about this is that I am treated as a part of the team/family, not as some stranger who just showed up and sometimes needs stuff from them. This means, for one, that they are generous with their resources. They have a kitchen and I am allowed to keep my lunch in the fridge there. Sometimes, I even get free Kaffee und Kuchen.

It sounds like such a small thing, but it’s really nice to be able to just leave my things at my table, walk into the kitchen and make my sandwich or take a coffee break when I need to, and then go back to work, as opposed to some of the bigger archives, where you have to pack all your things up, check in with the person at the front desk who is staring at you and the ten other scholars in the room to make sure you don’t hurt the art, tell them you intend on coming back, walk to the one and only restaurant/source of food available to you, walk back, check in again, and show your ID to a few people on your way back. I get to hear a lot of German, and I feel included in the daily life/work at the Foundation. I get to see them packing up works to send to an Italian gallery for a show there, sit in on some meetings and hear them discuss how to approach the vast project of conserving the material they have at the estate.

The people are friendly, and they care about helping me get settled in Hamburg. In my first week or so here, subletting a room while looking for more permanent housing and mired in paperwork, not really feeling like I could concentrate on my work until I had my life together, coming into the foundation every day gave me a little bit of stability in my life, and forced me to do at least a little work while frantically responding to housing ads and figuring out trains and bank accounts and all sorts of registration with the rest of my time.

Of course, the smallness also has its disadvantages. They don’t have separate staff here whose job it is to help you. Sometimes, I have to wait until someone has time to gather me a new shelf of material to look at. I’ve gotten good at making sure to bring other work with me, and accepting whatever the rhythm of my day ends up being. The people at the Foundation have a general sense what materials they have in the house, but it’s not as precisely documented or organized as in larger archives. I can’t walk in and say “I would like to see document gmp55.63 binder 12 folder 2a,” or “the correspondence between Darboven and Galerie Paul Maenz.” Proper citations are going to be a nightmare when it’s publishing time. “Oh, I found this document in the Leifheit vacuum cleaner box on shelf 2 of closet 1 in the room at the front of the house up the windy staircase. I have no way to describe to you more precisely where in the box this particular document is.” But I am going through the shelves of correspondences right now – not all of which in fact seem to be correspondences. It has, at least, led to some good intellectual surprises.

The Foundation also doesn’t have set hours that they’re explicitly open to the public. They told me “oh we don’t start that early. We usually get here sometime between 9 and 10. It would be good if you got here around 10.” So I do. I leave my apartment around 9 for the bus, get there around 10:00, let myself in the front gate, making sure not to let the dog or the goats out of the yard or into the house on my way, and leave around 4:30, or whenever other people seem to be leaving, whichever comes first. I have become one of those people who stops home at the grocery store on her way home from “work.” The return of this level of structure to my day after a few years of creating my own schedule punctuated by departmental events and my own teaching, was perhaps one of the more surprising difficulties in adjusting to life here in Germany. As I’m adjusting my diet and habits to what is available to me in Germany, I’ve been thinking a lot about where and when and how I get food. I’m so used to keeping hours flexible enough that I could usually take a mid-day break to run errands when stores were open, even in the midst of exam reading. But if the Foundation is willing to have me around Monday to Friday 10-4:30ish, that is where I am going to be.

My take-away, then, for those of you embarking on your own archival research and/or first adventures abroad – be flexible. Try to find a routine that works for you given the circumstances of your individual archive(s). And don’t underestimate how much time and mental energy it will take to just figure out how to live in a new place, to find the apartment, get the visa, find your favorite coffee shop, or the Turkish market where you can get your hummus and your lentils in bulk – whatever it is you need to do to feel like this place is actually your home.

-Victoria Salinger

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