Archive for Visual Materials
To drive into downtown Hartford is to drive back in time. Shopping malls and 7-11s give way to quiet brownstones, corniced Victorians, and brick factory buildings. Near the city’s center, the gold-domed State Capitol rises above the billboards of I-84. The Capitol is a fairy-tale structure, built in high Gothic Victorian, more at home in a novel by Bram Stoker than in “the Insurance Capital of the World.” Surrounding the Capitol are statues and commemorations of every kind, including Greek goddesses, Civil War cannons, busts of American writers, triumphal arches, and a squat, sword-wielding Confucius. A towering Marquis de Lafayette, mounted upon a stallion, always catches my eye as I drive past the Capitol towards the Hartford Public Library. He is trotting off to help Washington at Valley Forge. I am off to return overdue books.
A bit further down the green, less than a block from the Marquis, stands another figure, an eleven-foot high Christopher Columbus, coppery-green, perched on a nine-foot marble pedestal.
Looking at the statue, one imagines Columbus aboard the Santa Maria (a ship he disliked), clutching a nautical chart, gazing to his right, beyond Hispanola perhaps? But the Admiral needs to watch where he’s sailing. Just beyond the bowsprit, look out, Leviathan-Ho!
What were the city fathers thinking? They have set Columbus, discoverer of the New World, on a collision course with the soaring backside of Lafayette’s mount. Perhaps, I thought, Columbus’s remove from Lafayette made this visual insult hard to see. Clearly this had to have been an unintentional joke, the unwitting error of a middle-manager in the Parks Department, invisible to the good people of Hartford, obvious only to prurient-minded people like me. Still a joke is a joke and, seeing as this one involved Columbus, I wanted to know more.
The story of Lafayette and Columbus turns out to be a lot more complicated than I thought. Connecticut has at least seventeen monuments honoring Columbus. While the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the biggest Columbus event ever organized (about 27 million people attended the fair, a number that equaled half the U.S. population), most of Connecticut’s monuments were built, with considerably less fanfare, in the twentieth century. The Chicago Fair, while nominally celebrating Columbus, was really a showcase of White Anglo Saxon Protestant achievement in the New World, a paean to American Exceptionalism.
By contrast, most of the Columbus monuments of the twentieth-century were built by Italian-American groups. One expects that the new ranks of Italian immigrants pouring into American cities, most of whom were working-class Catholics, did not endear themselves to members of the WASP ruling class. Nor did the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, which led to the execution of two Italian anarchists in 1927, do much to help relations between classes. Or, for that matter, the Italian Mafia, which catered to the thirstier citizens of the Prohibition Era.
In this climate, one imagines that monuments to Columbus offered the American public a subtle reminder of the greatness of Italian heritage. Tea-totaling Protestants may have held the reins of power in the U.S., but Italian-Americans wanted it made clear: the tower of Anglo-Saxon prosperity rested on the foundations laid by a Catholic, wine drinking sailor from Genoa.
In Hartford, the plan to commemorate Columbus started auspiciously enough. Italian-Americans raised $15,000 to put up their local Columbus on Lafayette Green, then unoccupied by any other statue. Columbus was unveiled on 12 October 1926 before a crowd of three thousand, accompanied by a two-mile parade, floats, and speeches by the mayor of Hartford, the Governor of Connecticut, congressmen, and the Italian vice-council. Prize for “best-looking girl float” (for the float, the girl?) went to the Yolando Club of Waterbury. All in all, it appeared to be a happy event, a win for the Italian community and the civic-minded citizens of Hartford.
This lasted about ten months. Problems began the following year when organizers of the Columbus monument sought to change the name of Lafayette Green to “Columbus Green” in time for the Columbus Day celebration of 1928. The Board of Aldermen, unsure of what to do, referred the issue to the Park Commissioners, who, in turn, referred the issue back to the Board.
Meanwhile, the forces of Lafayette had gathered to launch a counter-attack. The French-American Republican Club drafted a resolution condemning the name change. They were soon joined by a phalanx of societies including the Connecticut Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Committee on Historic Sites, the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, the French Social Club, the Franco-American Foresters, and L’Association Canado-Americaine, all of whom protested The Great Admiral’s annexation of this small tuft of grass.
Katherine Day, Chairwoman of the Committee on Historic Sites, explained her opposition:
Why intrude Columbus on this area? Or, if so, why not the statues of Leif Ericson, Cabot and all the other brave explorers? … Should not our own soldiers and sailors and civil heroes have first place near the seat of our State life?
Day must have forgotten that Lafayette was a French aristocrat. As Hartford’s ethnic groups squared off against each other, the Board of Alderman quickly tabled the motion to change the name of the green. There matters stood until an Italian-American alderman raised the motion again in 1930.
A plan had been in the works for some time, at least five years, to erect a statue of Lafayette on the Green named after him but it had not moved forward for want of funds. Suddenly, after this second petition to change the name, an anonymous donor offered funds to complete the project. By 1932, Lafayette and his horse had found their new homes on the Green, showing their faces forever to the Capitol, and their backsides eternally to the Mariner of the Seas.
I had assumed that the monumental mooning of Columbus was unintentional. Now I’m not so sure.
Next Post: Columbus on the Green, Part II
I have been burning the candle at both ends this summer. I just finished an article about Lewis and Clark & Alexander von Humboldt two weeks ago, wrote a review of Graham Burnett’s book, Trying Leviathan, started a review of Robert McGhee’s book, The Last Imaginary Place, and have started a new article on the work of Frederick Cook. That this seemed an excellent time to pick up blogging says something about me, I’m not sure what exactly, but it would involve words such as hubristic and harebrained. I’ve loved writing the blog to be honest…but on days like today there’s no gas left in the tank. So no grand thoughts tonight, just pictures.
I have been making up a list of visual archives. Here are three of my favorites. Bentley Beetham was a British traveler and photographer who got hooked on mountain climbing in the 1910s. His path converged with the Mount Everest Committee in the 1920s and led to his inclusion on the 1924 Everest Expedition. Mallory never returned from the mountain, but Beetham did, bringing with him hundreds of photographs of the mountains, climbers, and Tibetan life. The Bentley Beetham Collection offers 2000 of his works, a combination of brilliant lantern slides and photo prints.
NASA gets beat up a lot here at Time to Eat the Dogs. As much as I complain about its policies, though, I admit to some weak-knee moments when I see images of the Saturn V hurling itself into space. The NASA Johnson Space Center has archived nine thousand images of the manned space program online on the JSC Digital Image Collection. It represents half a century of human missions, from Mercury to the Space Shuttle.
BibliOdyessey is a digital cabinet of curiousities authored by the Australian “PK”. PK must be in good with the Sydney archivists. Not only has he gotten some serious archive time, he’s also managed to bring his hi-def scanner along with him. BibliOdyessey offers stunning scans of the amazing, the obscure, and the bizarre. These are usually good tags for voyages of exploration – which are also well represented here.
I’ll be on the road for the next few weeks updating when I can. Happy Voyages.
Blogs are living things. They have their own cycles of growth, promiscuity, maturity, and senescence. Some rise above the tangled bank to reach the sunlight of popularity. Most crowd against each other in fits of collective navel-gazing. They soon decline in daily hits (the holy measurement of blog vigor) and die quietly in the shadows of the over-committed author. Given this instability, do blogs have the staying power to be archives?
Certainly not. While the political blog DailyKos may outrank the Library of Congress in daily web traffic, I am confident that L of C will still be hosting their Lewis and Clark materials in 2020. I don’t know what DailyKos will be doing (running a small country near Seattle perhaps). In short, blogs are not archives. Now that this is established, let me announce an amazing blog archive: Strange Maps. It is weird, historical, and snappy. If its mondo collection of bizarre maps is not exactly comprehensive, it is far-reaching in scope.
Not all of these maps have to do with exploration of course. So why feature Strange Maps here? A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which scholars weighed in on the various meanings of exploration. William Goetzmann and others view it as a process of continual re-discovery rather than a single moment of impressive flag-planting. In this spirit, Strange Maps is a place which discovers and rediscovers information about the world and projects these ideas in space. Perhaps this is an abstract and delirious way to describe the site – so to get a better idea, visit it yourself.
For the last two weeks, we’ve been on a long road trip: from Connecticut to Ohio, Illinois, upstate Michigan, and back to CT. As journeys go, it was not perhaps as impressive as, say, Scott’s trek to the South Pole. He ate pemmican, we ate cheetos. He drove sledges, we drove an Odyssey. His party suffered from scurvy, ours sunburn. Yet we achieved our own kind of glory: 2600 miles, 50 hours in a minivan, with two adults, two children, and one toddler, aged 1.5. No one perished from strangulation or defenestration, none were committed to asylums, none have talked to the press. Victory is ours.
Yesterday, at the end of a particularly long leg, we found ourselves on Rte 80 in northern Ohio, looking for a meal that would please all and could be had fast. In other words, pizza. But where to look in the rolling cornfields of Ohio? We got off 80 and asked the toll booth attendant. She couldn’t think of any place that made pizza. What planet had we landed on? Michele and I consulted our road atlas, a misshapen, parchment-colored thing, to see if we could glean a site out of the black and red lines and place names.
After some debate, we decided upon the town of Sandusky, about eight miles off of the highway from the exit. While it might have been possible to find pizza closer, it seemed unlikely to us that these small, silo-dotted towns would produce a pie to satisfy our elitist, bourgie palate. Without knowing anything else about the town of Sandusky, I liked the name, it sounded old, Polish perhaps? If so, I would imagine that it was settled in the early- or mid-19th century. Old Midwestern towns, I knew, were often built small and compact to accommodate walking traffic. These towns, with main street and thick brick commercial buildings, are now favorites of urban renovation, of ice cream shops, restaurants, and gourmet pizza. Sandusky, is this you? Moreover, the town was right on Lake Erie, at a point very close to the Canadian coast due north of the city. I saw them in my mind: hungry Canadian tourists climbing off the boat to celebrate summer at their favorite waterfront pizzeria.
This was all a wild, sherlock-holmesian, stab in the dark. There was no evidence to back up this speculative conjuring from a 1996 Ohio road map. Yet in the end, we were right to head to Sandusky. It was indeed a place we imagined: an old city with downtown, sidewalks, old buildings, and waterfront. Local residents told me that it was struggling to become the renovated, gentrified place that sometimes take root in down-on-their-luck industrial towns. More importantly, we found our parlor, the “Mona Pizza” on the main street perpendicular to the waterfront.
Mona Pizza, with its “Welcome Bikers!” sign, was was not quite the bourgie place I had imagined. But it counted where it mattered, offering up a tasty, New-York-style, thin-crust pie in 20 minutes.
All of this got me thinking about maps. Historians of many stripes are savvy in how they read visual documents, from pictures, paintings, and illustrations to maps. However precisely surveyed, however carefully rendered, maps and landscape are subjective documents, painted with the hues of culture as well as pigment. A long look at one of the landscapes of Frederic Church, for example, tells a great deal about Church’s vision of the country and of the United States as an emerging empire.
Frederic Church, “Our Banner in the Sky,” 1863
Yet it seems from what I’ve read (and from the visual analysis that I’ve done myself) that much of this analysis is focused on the object. That is, the question most commonly asked is “How do the historical artifacts carry culture?” Reading the road map of Ohio, I realized that many of our decisions had to do with our own cultural baggage as viewers, of our knowledge of Midwestern towns, our study of American history, our snooty notions of good pizza. Put more broadly, the Sandusky experience made me wonder how the individual subject encounters the map. How does the subject shape the map’s reading? This is a difficult question to answer. We all bring different things to our interpretation of maps, documents, indeed, virtually everything we come into contact with.
But it brought me back to issues of exploration.
For many academics, especially in the humanities, the world is a place divided into those-who-do (them) and those-who-interpret-what-others-do (us). Generally, relations tend to fall apart on the subject of “experience.” In the eyes of explorers, for example, historians can never fully understand events in the field because they weren’t there themselves. Historians, on the other hand, point to the importance of this distance from the field – of the biases that naturally result from close involvement in a project – in portraying events even-handedly. As one of the chronicler-class rather than the doer class, my sympathies have always been with my academic posse in this debate.
But reading the map of Sandusky, I realized the importance of the viewers’ perspective in reading the map. And in terms of my work, I realized the great gulf that separates the experience of explorers (both western and indigenous) from those of us who seek to figure them out. How, for example, did Robert Peary’s experience of the ice cap, or the Greenland ice sheet, shape the way he viewed such places inscribed on paper? How did James Cook’s knowledge of Atlantic currents shape the way he read his sketchy maps of the Pacific? Looking at these same maps, what did Cook’s Tahitian guide Omai see rendered there?
Gardner’s Comparative Heights of Mountains and Rivers, 1823
When I was a young, baby-faced graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the good fortune of attending a series of lectures by Simon Schama on his new book Landscape and Memory. Schama presented a cultural history of landscape in Europe (mountains, rivers, forests). He was compelling as a lecturer, impressive in his arguments. But man, did he have good slides. I had already begun to settle into the history of exploration as my thesis area. But I had always imagined that I would approaching this material from the world of text: logs, journals, scientific monographs, etc. As Schama delivered his lectures (they took place over three days), his slides were more than eye-candy, they were arguments. This may sound silly, but I never thought about the visual artifacts of exploration as evidence until that moment. In any event, I am always on the lookout for good expeditionary photos, engravings, etc. Over the next few posts, I hope to share some sites with good pickings for those of you who are visually inclined.
David Rumsey started digitalizing his map collection twenty years ago. He now has over 17,000 of them scanned, online, free of access to all. There are some amazing maps here, authored by Lewis and Clark, James Cook, and Alexander von Humboldt among others. You will need to download one of the specialized browsers on his site, but once this is set up you can view thousands of exploration maps in all of their hi-def grandeur and download them too. One of the best features is the document notes available with each map. Sometimes these offer secondary source notes useful for explaining context, etc.
Have fun: http://www.davidrumsey.com/