Risking a Research Trip in Unprecedented Times

Guest article by Molly Taylor-Poleskey

From mid-February to the end of April 2021, I was a visiting researcher with the Cultures of Vigilance Research Group at LMU Munich. How bizarre to travel and work abroad (with a family) during a pandemic when all of our cultures of vigilance are in hyperdrive! Even as vaccines become more widely available, it is still difficult to know when will be the right time to move past the fear of the very serious illness or of transmitting illness and travel. For me, there was no substitute for “being there,” exchanging ideas in person, and reading the archived manuscripts. The whole experience was a reminder just how vital research travel is.

When I think back on the long list of barriers to this trip’s success, it is still surprising to me that it actually happened. We had to jump through extra bureaucratic hoops like obtaining a letter of support from the DAAD for the visa application and many, many COVID tests. While this was, at times, a stressful undertaking, it was a great privilege to experience a different pandemic culture. America did not pursue widespread testing in the way that Germany did and it was actually difficult to even find a way to get a PCR test taken before our departure. Then, at the Nashville airport, we almost weren’t allowed to board our first flight because the gate agent confused AM with PM and thought my results wouldn’t be recent enough! 

Covid-19 testing tent in Englischer Garten, Munich. Photo: Molly Taylor-Poleskey.

Many parts of the journey were just eerie, like when my son and I were two of the few guests at a 52-story hotel in downtown Atlanta where we applied for our visas in an absolutely empty consulate office. Or, when we saw dozens and dozens of parked planes on the tarmac at the usually busy international terminal of Dulles airport. It felt like a movie set when I saw medical workers in hazmat suits staffing a COVID testing tent at the Chinese Tower in the English Garden. 

There were many points when I thought I wouldn’t clear the next hurdle or that I should cancel altogether. One might ask, why do it at all? Was my research really the “essential research” required for a German visa at the time? Well, I don’t anticipate lives to be dramatically altered due to my forthcoming book on Prussian food culture of the 17th century, but I hope some historical opinion might. Furthermore, the timing of this trip was the tipping point. For a number of personal and professional reasons (tenure calendar, book contract, teaching load, kids’ schooling and ages, etc.), this trip was either going to happen this spring or not at all. 

At the airport. Photo: Molly Taylor-Poleskey..

All of the hurdles were surmountable because of the support of my husband and babysitters, the Cultures of Vigilance group and Middle Tennessee State University (which reduced my teaching load for the spring to just one graduate seminar conducted via Zoom in the evenings). Even so, it was a gamble to the point we got out of quarantine after arrival: was it going to be worth it? 

Yes. Against all odds, those two and a half months were the most productive of my career. I had anticipated that I would spend the time revising my book manuscript, which I began by addressing a reviewer’s comment about an episode of suspected poisoning at the court of Brandenburg-Prussia in 1687. The reviewer merely said there was a body of secondary literature on poisoning in early modern Europe that I should consider. But, once I dug into the topic, I realized there was a lot more to the episode than I had realized and I wrote an entirely new chapter about food vulnerability—the perfect capstone to a book about representative power in court food. 

A week or two after my arrival in Munich, research libraries started to reopen and to figure out their pandemic reader regulations and I was swimming in secondary literature that helped me to contextualize the 1687 death of an electoral prince. I built a list of questions about medical and investigative procedures at court that weren’t being answered by other historians (particularly Prussian historians who only cared about the succession implications of the episode). I had to get to the archives and read the original records.

Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Traveling to Berlin around Easter (where I wouldn’t have childcare) posed a new set of logistical difficulties, but with daily testing, I did get two days at the Prussian State Secret Archives and those two days exploded my understanding of the court at the time. Thankfully, I could photograph hundreds of pages of manuscript at the archives, but alone what I read there in one day gave me a most intimate perspective of antagonisms and daily activities at court. 

When I returned to Munich, my generous colleagues shared expertise on points like the meaning of certain Latin phrases in an autopsy or typical procedures for a 17th-century investigation. The office started to look like a Tatort investigation as I pieced together evidence on Post-It notes about suspected persons, motives, and means of murder. 

Post-it notes in the Munich office. Photo: Molly Taylor-Poleskey..

I worked at an unprecedented rate – seeing connections faster than ever because I had almost immediate access to my materials and knew my topic so thoroughly after years of working on it. My creative energy was bursting with engagement (even from a 6-foot distance and masked!) with colleagues after so many months of isolation and Zoom fatigue. 

As I revise the chapter at home this summer, I reflect on how meaningful it was to be a guest of Cultures of Vigilance Research Group. In spite of everything, this was a fruitful period and more than ever showed me how essential research trips and exchanges are for advancing historical understanding. If I hadn’t overcome my own fear, I wouldn’t have grasped the essential component of fear in early modern concepts of dining, health, and rule.

Dr. Molly Taylor-Poleskey is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History at Middle Tennessee State University. From mid-February to the end of April 2021 she was a visiting researcher at the Collaborative Research Centre 1369 „Cultures of Vigilance“ at LMU Munich.


Featured image: Molly’s son in an almost empty hotel in Atlanta.


Cite this article as: Molly Taylor-Poleskey, Risking a Research Trip in Unprecedented Times, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 26/08/2021, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/1767.


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