Arts & Culture

“Global Americana” charts interhemispheric history

Americas-centric John Carter Brown collection takes global turn, features multicontental themes

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2017

“Global Americana,” the latest exhibit at the John Carter Brown Library, comprises a range of perspectives through which to look at the early modern history of the Americas. Through its array of commentaries and historiographies, the comprehensive exhibit charts a global course for the library’s previously Americas-centered collection.

“Global Americana,” which opened in early September, will provide visitors with the opportunity to pore over the curated portion of the library’s intimidatingly vast collection throughout the fall semester. 

Histories grounded in economic, medicinal and environmental subject matter, among others, compose the exhibit’s primary documents. Though all of the objects relate to the library’s focus on the history of the Western hemisphere, the exhibit makes a claim to its “global” name by including historical documents and illustrations centered on transatlantic discourse.

“Even though all the items deal with the Early Americas, they’re still connected to every part of the world in some way, be it in what a text relates to or the parts of the world it traveled,” said Tara Kingsley, the library’s coordinator of academic programming and public outreach. “The exhibition covers so many themes, some of which relate to specific initiatives the library has, such as native and indigenous studies.”

Its annals include Spanish scientific drawings of New World armadillos and a historical record that draws comparisons between Central American chocolate and Arabian coffee. Composed in languages ranging from English to Portuguese to Quechua, the collection further emphasizes the global in its linguistic bending of boundaries, featuring objects that place multiple languages alongside one another.    

One of the most valuable items on display is a facsimile of a world map dated ca.1513 CE. “It’s one of the earliest maps in which the term ‘America’ appears as a toponym,” Kingsley said.

Academics and scholars across the world were responsible for choosing objects from the library’s collection and writing explanations that contextualize pieces’ places — both in the broader histories of the Americas and their interactions with the rest of the Early Modern world.

“Some of (the scholars) are fellows at our library and others are graduate students at the University,” Kingsley said. “But the majority are scholars from different countries that had access to the digitized versions of our collection. … The fact that so much of our collection is digitized already enabled us to bring in all these different people.”

These globe-trotting scholars include Irna Podgomy of Argentina’s Museo de la Plata, as well as Mark Thumer of the University of London. Their cosmopolitan commentary underscores the distinctly global context of the exhibit’s contents.

Sherri Cummings GS, whose research centers on early 17th to 19th-century African-American and African Atlantic history, helped curate the exhibition. Her main contribution was a letter from an anti-abolitionist New Englander objecting to the historic Sumerset v. Stewart case, which, citing English common law, declared chattel slavery illegal.

Special programming during Family Weekend is set to help promote both the exhibit and the John Carter Brown Library’s collections as a whole, Kingsley said.

“For Family Weekend, we’ll be hosting a Saturday program with a number of professors at Brown, including (Robert) Douglas Cope, Emily Owens and Felipe Rojas (Silva), that relates to their research in the collection and the objects in ‘Global Americana,’” Kingsley said. “The idea is to get more people aware of our library and how its contents relate to their (professors’) research.”