WRI 240/241: From Cuneiform to Codices: Archival Methods for Special Collections Research

Students discussing artifacts in the Princeton University Art Museum

What do Hokusai’s prints of ghosts and Toni Morrison’s maps of a fictional town have in common? Beyond being compelling imaginative documents, both are examples of objects humanists across disciplines engage with to produce new knowledge about our experiences of the world. For instance, an art historian might examine Hokusai’s woodblock prints to understand how his line work reflects and adapts previous woodcut printing conventions, while an East Asian historian could investigate what these ghosts reveal about 19th-century Japanese imaginations of the supernatural. Similarly, a literature scholar might study Morrison’s maps with a focus on how spatial relationships complicate a novel’s themes, even as an African American Studies researcher could investigate how depictions of geographic segregation perpetuate collective memories of Jim Crow. Such research is not limited to professional scholars, however. Undergraduates can also develop original projects by investigating objects like these in Princeton’s Special Collections. But what kinds of knowledge production do archival research methodologies make possible? And how might one’s object(s) of focus and analytic approach determine effective ways to communicate findings? 


Build flexible, interdisciplinary academic skills in a community of friends and fellow scholars!

This sophomore research seminar immerses students in Firestone’s Special Collections to explore such questions. From curating a set of objects and ethically practicing a range of interpretive strategies, to producing knowledge with diverse audiences in mind, students will begin developing the practical skills and habits of mind foundational to archival humanities scholarship. A prospective history major might pore over Aaron Burr’s death mask to characterize how it mythologizes a Revolutionary Princetonian, and German or religion majors could create a digital comparison of passages from pre-Luther vernacular Bibles to show how a translator’s choices impact theological reform. Musicologists could examine Beethoven’s 1815-16 musical sketchbook in light of published scores to understand his creative process, while Latin American Studies or Spanish majors might dive into recently acquired photo and program albums of Puerto Rican dancer/choreographer Alma Concepción to create a visual history of a choreography’s performance evolution. All topics and students are welcome, whether you plan to major in a humanities field or not!

Sample Reading List

Barry, Anna Maria and Verity Burke, “Behind the Mask: Death Masks, Celebrity, and [Princeton’s] Laurence Hutton Collection,” Victoriographies 12, no. 1 (2022), pp. 10-30.

Clark, Timothy, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, (British Museum Press: 2022).

Evans, Shari, “Programmed Space, Themed Space, and the Ethics of Home in Toni Morrison’s Paradise,” African American Review, Vol. 46, No. 2/3 (Summer/Fall 2013), pp. 381-396.

Langermann, Y. Tzvi., “Transcription, Translation, and Annotation: Observations on Three Medieval Islamicate Medical Texts in University of Pennsylvania Libraries MS Codex 1649,” Manuscript Studies: a Journal of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies 1, no. 1 (2016), pp. 135–150.

Buch, David J., “A Newly-Discovered Manuscript of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte from the Copy Shop of Emanuel Schikaneder’s Theater Auf Der Wieden,” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 45, no. 3/4 (2004), pp. 269–79.


  • Writing assignments 80%
  • Class/precept participation 20%

2024-25 Seminar

Seminar meets Wednesdays 8:30 - 9:50 a.m.

50-minute precept time to be scheduled.

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Review the Frequently Asked Questions.

For more information about WRI 240/241, please contact Philip Keel Geheber.