“The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow.” Jacques Derrida
Derrida is playful with time and the archives. Toying with the notion that there is ultimately something rather inscrutable about them, he suggests that searching for meaning is a task that we may never quite complete. This seems appropriate for the messy experience of working in an archive – moving between past, present, and future; knowledge gathering but equally raising more questions, leaving more gaps.
All the untold stories.
But whatever those gaps or silences may be, visiting a traditional archive is an intentional act. Often researchers have studied a finding aid beforehand and have a good idea what it is they want to work with. This intentionality brings a certain air of expectation with it. Sometimes it’s possible to guess or speculate about what might be there, but whatever the case, we know something will be there.
What is quite a different experience is when intentionality is removed and you are happily going about your business and bump into artefacts that you were not expecting to see. And Sylvia Plath pops up in some of the most curious places.
On a recent visit to the Ocean Liners exhibition at the V & A Museum in London, I was prepared to see items from the glamorous, and sometimes tragic, history of transatlantic travel. And there were lots of these. A dark flannel suit worn by Marlene Dietrich on one of her many crossings, a deckchair found floating in the ocean after the Titantic had gone down, and a diamond tiara rescued from a stricken liner. Closing the exhibition, bobbing on a virtual glassy square of black sea, was the largest surviving piece of the Titanic — a wooden door frame showing the point at which the ship had split in half.
I was of course aware that Plath had sailed across the Atlantic three times. Firstly in 1955 when she came to England to study on a Fulbright Scholarship at Cambridge University, then sailing back to America to teach at Smith College in 1957, before finally returning to England in late 1959. One of these crossings is described in meticulous detail here in Sylvia Plath and the SS United States – the food, the weather, other passengers, filling hours reading and eating. The ship was then the fastest transatlantic ocean liner – able to cover the distance from New York to Southampton in three and a half days. Now, the ship sits in a dry dock, stripped bare and rusting, with conservation groups struggling to raise money to restore it.
It was unexpected then as I was wandering around the V & A exhibition to encounter artefacts removed from the SS United States. A cocktail table, a lamp, a deckchair, glass screens, and an ostentatious wall sculpture. All of these items would have accompanied Plath as she crossed the Atlantic and each item brought the past firmly into the present. I talk about traces often, but that is because they seem to be everywhere. And I love the intangibility of them, how they play with imagination, and are steeped in told and untold stories.
The glass panels designed by Charles Gilbert, etched with coral reef scenes, were hung on the walls of the ballroom. No combustible materials were used on the SS United States, so fireproof products such as glass and metal were used instead. A cocktail table also found in the ballroom had a design based on the five-bladed propellers of the ship. The interior furniture of the liner was designed by an all-women firm owned by Dorothy Marckwald.
A wall sculpture gracing the first class grand staircase depicted an American symbol of the bald eagle, designed by Austin M. Purves, Jr. and was one of two hundred sculptures on board depicting a variety of plants and flowers from across all American states. A table lamp, more reminiscent of a black nautical lantern, threw out three-tiered layers of light and was another Dorothy Marckwald design.
An aluminium, plastic, and nylon deckchair provided a practical fold-away piece of furniture – though on Plath’s December 1959 crossing one suspects it did not get much use.
Finding unexpected artefacts linked to Plath in this way delightfully reanimates a specific cultural moment. These items bear traces of the past, alluding to forgotten stories and histories. Fragments from another time emerge in a different context allowing us to re-order and re-assign new associations, new meanings as well as new and unexpected stories.