“Playing detective” and a minor question of ethics

I’ve always had a love for history, especially when you don’t know all the details of an event or person but you still have a few testimonies or maybe a couple of pictures; just scraps of evidence that you then try to piece together into a bigger picture. I think this is why I enjoy rooting around the archives at Wheal Martyn while doing research on our Science and Engineering exhibition for the Citizen Curators course.

My focus is on a William Francis, a local engineer who worked in St. Austell around the clay era, who has a large collection of gifted objects from his grandson. However, while searching his name on Modes, I came across a picture with the initials W.F listed as possibly William Francis. Intrigued I try to play detective a little by comparing it with a known picture of him. Similar facial shape, a similar moustache… all coincidental. What is interesting is the red pen and handwriting used to label a picture of his group of workers: were the pictures given to WM and named at the same time, or were they named already when gifted? Were the initials W.F so obvious to the person writing them that it didn’t need to be expanded upon? Perhaps a sign of how well known they might have been.

The back may also hold a possible clue. It’s hard to make out but the address it’s being sent to is Blowing House Hill, a street literally just around the corner from Bodmin Road, where Francis’s workshop was. Again, it’s a coincidence but it makes you wonder if he was a worker or friend.

All of this leads me to think that there is a high chance it is him. So how does ethics play into this? Well one thing that is reiterated in the Citizen Curator courses is the ethics code and the ideas of honesty, integrity and responsibility. It’s only a small photo that may or may not be pertinent overall but the curator is in that position of power to give information to their audience, and if there is a possibility of them being wrong, they risk losing that audience’s trust.

So should I include his picture with the exhibit? The answer of course is no, but what about including his picture with the proviso that it could possibly have been him, ending with a question mark? I’m not sure, but personally I would have to say no. While you still maintain honesty by admitting you’re unsure, I think not knowing for definite would just keep me up at night! I’m lucky that in this case there are at least other pictures that can be used (and an email address for his grandson for a possible follow up!), but other exhibitions may not be so lucky.

Where, then, do little mysteries like these go, if not on exhibit? Well, with the advent of the internet and social media for discussion, blogs like these and on a museum’s website are the perfect way to go. They allow for discussion, and there’s also that slight chance someone out there will see it and be able to answer definitely for you.

So what do you think, is it the same person? And would you include it regardless of certainty?

Simon Dunham @ Wheal Martyn

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