Post Mortem – The Challenges of Field Research

L’aventurier! Le musée est fermé.

Since this blog is being written several weeks after my return from my research trip through France and Belgium, it probably qualifies as “emotions recollected in tranquility” – to borrow Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetic creations. Well perhaps there wasn’t too much poetry involved, but emotions, yes. These kicked in mostly in the form of anger, frustration, exasperation, and even occasionally humor.

But just to bring these matters to some closure, I thought I might indulge in a little post-mortem on the subject of field research – a caveat to others who might be tempted to fork out their hard-earned money in pursuit of first hand experience in Europe. (I cannot yet speak for research in other parts of the world, but imagine that things are not going to improve as I follow my Crusader across Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, not to mention what might be involved in the mysterious journey of the Shroud itself – stay tuned.)

So here are a few conclusions I have drawn based on my experiences over the past few weeks.

  1. The day you arrive (the only day you have) the Museum/ Historical monument is closed. (It does not matter which day you arrive.)
  2. The hours during which the Museum/Historical monument is open mean
    a.) that you have to sit in some café all morning eating croissants until noon – as they say, “travel is a broadening experience” or
    b.) that you have five minutes to climb 365 stairs, take a quick look at whatever it was you needed to see, and get back down again before the guardian locks you in for the night.
  3. The object/s you came to see are
    a.) “on loan” to another museum – usually one in your own homeland or
    b.) have been “archived” or are “undergoing restoration” – no one knows when they will reemerge.
    You can of course make a written application to the Curator for a private viewing, and perhaps access will be granted at some point in the distant future (envision here a perfect Gallic shrug – “Who knows?”).
  4. The expert you need to talk to is
    a.) at lunch – which may last most of the afternoon
    b.) has just left for a three week vacation
    c.) is on maternity leave
    d.) is “no longer with us” and due to shortage of funds will never be replaced.
  5. The document/book you need is available only in Dutch.
  6. Flocks of rambunctious school children arrive just as you are trying to imagine how it must have felt to walk these ancient cloisters in 1146.
  7. The river you expected to find has
    a.) dried up
    b.) been diverted due to new construction
    c.) never existed in the first place.
  8. The port from which you thought your hero left Europe for the Holy Land is
    a.) now silted up
    b.) underwater
    c.) never existed in the first place.

These are just a few random recollections, but lest you think me ungrateful for this opportunity to explore the homeland of my hero, I must add that these were mere pinpricks on the rich tapestry that unfolded during my three-week quest. Unfortunately, much of what I learned and experienced will not make it into the novel (see: Vezelay to Autun through the Morvan) but I have to believe that at another level, nothing is lost. Now at least I know that the countryside around the Castle of Ooidonk is an excellent venue for a mock battle, and that the sun does not set behind the great towers of Cluny if you are arriving from the north – duh!

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