Archives aim to provide safe housing for historical documents, as well as to provide a location suitable for research. At the same time, archives represent something of a distortion of history, biography, and autobiography. They represent autobiography in that the individual under investigation played some role in determining what he saved, and what he did not. If he chose to save a particular item that seems out of place, one must wonder why he or she saved a particular item from the waste bin. For example, very few letters remain from Wingate's early life, but he did save a letter he wrote to a priest about the glories of hunting on horseback, and the thrill of its 'ancient rights' against the 'proletariat lowness of life.' He also saved a pamphlet on phrenology, a debunked sort of science of the mind. With the pamphlet, he self-administered a personality test in which he rated his own mental faculties, and cited various areas of improvement. A more pedestrian keepsake included a letter from his best friend Derek Tulloch; Derek wrote to Old Boy Wingate asking him to serve as the best man in his wedding. These three items come from his time at Camp Larkhill, a vast military encampment situated on Salisbury's chalk plateau. He served there very early on in his military career, in the mid 1920s. He could easily have lost the items, and would have needed at least a moment to determine to save them, even if all he did was to drop them in a chest and ship them off to his parent's house.
Archives also represent biography, in that the archivists label, place and sort all of the items. Since each box and folder can only hold so many items, and each item receives only so many searchable keywords, they necessarily must assign nominal categories. Typically, archivists are subject matter experts on preservation and restoration of documents; they become familiar with the items they preserve, but often can only spend a limited amount of time with the subject material they sort through. Due to time limitations, often snap a judgment on a nominal categorization, and a document well suited to one particular folder or box of the 1930s winds up twenty years prior. This happened with a series of short essays Wingate wrote concerning the compared political-economies of Britain and the United States; he probably wrote them prior to shipping off to Palestine as an intelligence officer, but the archivists deliberately placed them with his records from his time as a teenager at the Royal Military Academy Woolwich; the archivists helpfully noted, "Found among Larkhill papers, but seemed more appropriate here." They assumed the school-like character of the essays meant that they belonged to that period of his life, but the essays refer to dated events that occurred in the 1930s. And Wingate, while intelligent, could not claim quite that level of prescience. Still, nothing one can do. They've got to uphold the nominal categories they started with, or else their search system will break down, and the archives fall into a hell of tossed paper.
That was a somewhat minor example of how biographic image can shape an archive. More importantly, family members, friends, writers, and collectors choose what items to submit to the archives, and which to hold onto or destroy. Thus, primary interpretations and selections effect subsequent research.
This is not at all a tragedy. Human beings shape and interpret human life, and we all share similar interests and concerns; we recognize what matters to us. What's lost is lost. The rest gives us plenty to move on.
Most of my time here I spend with the twelve boxes. But they also have over 120 audio files pertaining to Wingate. His voice is not to be found on any of them, which is unfortunate. But with 120 files, I could learn something about the men who served with Wingate, and knew him. The largest file comes from Michael "Mad Mike" Calvert, the commander of 77 Brigade and Wingate's best battlefield commander. It's too long to listen to on this trip. I'll sample some of the audio documents, but I've got to manage my time.