Centering animals in archival research

"Poodle" in Vier und zwanzig Abbildungen verschiedener Hunde by Magnus Brasch. Nürnberg, in der Raspischen Buchhandlung, 1789. Rare Book N7660 .B7 Chapin-HorowitzTracing the histories of oppressed groups is notoriously difficult as their members may have been prevented from attaining educational or material resources that would allow them to keep records of their experiences. Or their existence may have been deemed so inconsequential that they were simply excluded from or misrepresented by larger data sources like census records, upon which researchers often rely. Consider the especially elusive nature of historical records that detail the lived experiences of nonhuman animals in a society where they are largely regarded as objects, property, or pests.

Nonhuman animals did not leave diaries or letters behind for historians to piece together life from their perspectives. Therefore, researchers often have to rely on materials produced by humans to access the historical lives of animals. One way to practice animal-centered historiography is to track animal presence in traditional archival materials, such as the visual representation of animals in books and paintings.

Portrait of “Queen” by Diana Thorne from Dogs: Paintings and Stories.
Portrait of “Queen” by Diana Thorne from Dogs: Paintings and Stories. Akron, OH: The Saalfield Publishing Company, 1932. Rare Book N7660.75 Chapin-Horowitz

The Chapin-Horowitz Collection is home to an array of books and drawings by popular 20th century illustration artist Diana Thorne, who was famed for her ability to capture a dog’s individuality and commissioned for numerous portraits. Thorne’s original pen and ink portrait of Fala, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier, will be on display in Special Collections as part of the exhibit Tracking Animals: Animal Studies Research in the Archive.

In putting together this exhibit, I sought to demonstrate the diversity of materials available to researchers working in the field of animal studies. This interdisciplinary field centers nonhuman animals in a range of contexts: historical, ethical, sociological, and literary. Animal studies is concerned with challenging speciesism and its associated forms of animal exploitation, recognizing animals as subjects rather than objects, and better understanding interspecies relations.

Speciesism, or the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals, is represented historically in artifacts made from animals and animal by-products. The Tracking Animals exhibit features a small selection of items from the eighteenth through the twentieth century that were made from animals’ bodies. The exhibit asks viewers to reframe these objects beyond their human use and consider the individual animals that were killed or exploited to manufacture them.


Antebellum domino set. Bone and ebony wood. Education Collection. EDU2013.025
Antebellum domino set. Bone and ebony wood. Education Collection. EDU2013.025


Finally, the exhibit snapshots the history of animal liberation activism in Virginia through letters written to US Senator A. Willis Robertson between 1960 and 1967 in support of proposed legislation that would lead to the enactment of the Animal Welfare Act in 1966. As the only piece of federal legislation regulating the treatment of animals used in laboratory research, transportation, exhibition, and by dealers, these Virginian’s support of the Act is historic in its own right.

The items featured in the Tracking Animals exhibit, which will run June 20th through December 20th 2014, are examples of valuable historical material for those interested in animal studies. Home to the oldest book of dogs featuring color illustrations and the political letters of mid-century Virginian activists, William & Mary’s Special Collections Research Center is an excellent starting place for your research in animal studies.

For more information about the field of animal studies, see SCRC’s research guide on the subject:

Linda Monahan is a graduate student in American Studies and a 2013-2014 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.