The Middle Shore is a site for collections and collecting, a digital beach traversed by visitors picking their ways through a strand of scattered fragments, a drift zone made of the pieces, shells, and bones of lives passed. Just as beachcombers are pulled by tangible things – material tokens/takings from hidden ocean worlds – archival scholars are compelled by the look, sound, and feel of chance survivals resurfaced in new contexts. In the archive and on the shore, we encounter dead things, broken things, bleached and eroded things, but also charismatic things that pull us into new assemblies, new gatherings. When we work on things, they work on us. Stooping over to bring them closer, we become “friends of interpretable objects” (Tamen, 2001), members of new communities formed by attraction and inquiry.
The Middle Shore intends to animate the connection between scholar and beachcomber, to materialize our metaphor, by using virtual environs to delve into the experience of responding to found matter. Both the content and the form of the site aim to manifest the affective and phenomenological dimensions of working with archives, caches, collections, clusters, and middens of various sorts. Of these, the midden, the pile of discarded remnants, was our chief inspiration, so we begin at Low Tide with a litter of fragments awaiting arrangement. These imagistic pieces have been stripped of the contexts previously built for them by scholars, designers, curators, bloggers, and other agents of explanation (though of course there is still artifice in our construction of a “pile”).
We invite our visitors to attend to the senses activated by our partial objects before creating new stories for them, to experiment in feeling one’s way through this strewn stuff. We urge our guests to consider:
To answer these questions is to trace the embodied dispositions at play in acts of finding, gathering, and curating. Since our beach is a virtual one, we aim to s(t)imulate the affects involved in beachcombing and thereby explore the possibility of (re)creating the experience in a digital medium. If we succeed, visitors may move alongside shores, pasts, and people from which they otherwise might be geographically or temporally distant.
Our particular midden lies in the “Middle Ages,” a historical territory often conceived as lying between the bedrock of Mediterranean antiquity and the liquid flux of global modernity. Historians are well aware of the pitfalls of “Middle” and “medieval” (from Latin medium aevum) as terms applied to Europe and parts of Asia from roughly the fifth century to the fifteenth. The words label the period as one that is between eras of more character, influence, or import; the “Middle” Ages can designate a holding pattern, an empty place on the way to Somewhere, a waiting game, a dead zone before the “rebirth” of a golden age in the Renaissance. But there is also something valuable in the terms’ instance on an identity in relation to other eras and areas. The “between” implies both contingency and flexibility, and it points to the dependence of the medieval on the places occupied by those who name it. On The Middle Shore, the boundaries of our Middle Ages shift in each rearrangement of its contents, and we anticipate that time and use may see the whole of the site drift, like a barrier island, to a different chronological location.
That the medieval period is an ongoing creation is one of the convictions of the BABEL Working Group, which sponsored the conference that gave rise to our project (“On the Beach”). There, the first wave of participants displayed the exhibits that they made from or in response to our Low Tide collection. Our title, The Middle Shore, also pays homage to In the Middle, a collaborative blog that approaches study of the Middle Ages as the writing of history-in-process. The blog’s authors situate themselves “in the middle” of the medieval, rather than in a retrospective documenting of the bygone, and they freely mix personal and public histories, medieval and postmedieval concerns. The Middle Shore similarly frames the past as the co-creation of multiple eras, and of professional and amateur renderings. While a number of the contributors to our project are employed as medievalists, some are not, and no credentials or expertise are required to peruse or play in our sands. Ours is a public beach, and we hope that it will attract scholars, teachers, students, enthusiasts, collectors, curators, designers, and curious bystanders of many kinds.
That said, we think it worth noting that, in its pre-publication history, the beachcombing project of The Middle Shore proved most attractive to one particular group of people: all eight volunteers who responded to the call for panelists were women, as were the majority of the audience at the conference and the three graduate students who were interested in the project’s internship. There is no obvious explanation for this surprisingly gendered response, and such a small group cannot easily be said to reflect larger patterns in academe. Yet it bears thinking about whether collecting, especially sensuous gathering, gleaning, or sifting, is in some way considered women’s work. We can’t help but recall the sexual norms at work in popular characterizations of “hunter-gatherer societies,” in which men heroically land the big game and women scutter around with baskets full of berries and seeds. It is of course not our intention to prolong the life of this particular fantasy about the past (and the non-industrial or non-Western present), but we encourage investigation of the ways in which the particular actions performed in the care and preservation of small things may themselves be gendered, racialized, tied to age-groups, or otherwise allotted to certain bodies.
With continuing participation in our collection of collections, we hope to showcase the affective inclinations of a more diverse group, including participants from a wider variety of geographic locations (our beginnings were entirely North American). Just as ocean currents bear material from afar and distribute it around the blue globe, digital infrastructure may stream the bits of our midden overseas and into other hemispheres. This is not to say the “world wide” web always lives up to its oceanic ideal: nationalist and linguistic affiliations often discourage global collaboration in digital projects, and traditional scholarship, too, is heavily influenced by national cultures (including differences in the management of archives). Yet The Middle Shore acknowledges a global Middle Ages, not with the intent of rigging other cultures to Europe’s temporal dock, but in the understanding that the medieval West did not, and does not, exist in isolation. Our fragments, together and sometimes even within themselves, enact a mingled inheritance.
Something between a museum and a forum, The Middle Shore is both interdisciplinary and interactive. It offers a recombinative approach to staging medieval matter and a chance to discern patterns of movement in this collective recreation. A beach can be, after all, a recreational place where we make and remake marks, arrangements, and small castles in the sand.
Lara Farina, West Virginia University
Katherine Richards, West Virginia University
We would like to thank: our contributors, for their patience with our process and willingness to explore new forms; Hannah Gracy, for the photographs that lend our shore its limpid beauty; our project advisors, Asa Mittman and Whitney Trettien, for their feedback and encouragement; and, most of all, Helen Burgess, for co-founding Electric Press and making our work a part of it. West Virginia University provided Katherine with a paid internship to work on site design in Summer 2015.
Tamen, Miguel. 2001. Friends of Interpretable Objects. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.