From concept to curation, Making and Unmaking Emancipation in Cuba and the United States, currently on exhibit in Rare Books and Special Collections at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, has been unique.
The exhibit, which explores the fraught, circuitous and unfinished course of emancipation over the 19th century in Cuba and the United States, is co-curated by Erika Hosselkus, curator of Latin American studies and Iberian studies and associate university librarian for scholarly resources and services, and Rachel Bohlmann, curator of North Americana and American history librarian. It features primary source materials from Notre Dame’s Latin American and North American collections and marks the first time that the two collections have interacted together in a single exhibit.
“We wanted to explore our holdings related to the history of slavery and the experiences of people of color,” said Hosselkus.
From the beginning, Hosselkus said she and Bohlmann wanted to be deliberate with how they handled the exhibit. So, planning for the exhibition began more than two years ago.
“We wanted to make sure we had time to think through all of the perspectives as well as we could and to be deliberate about how we discussed and represented experiences that are not our own,” said Hosselkus.
Developing the big picture
Typically, an exhibition is created around materials in a collection. Each item is a puzzle piece that, when put together on display, creates a picture, or in this case, an exhibit.
“That’s one of the best parts of doing exhibitions,” said Hosselkus. “You have the time and the opportunity to research sources that you know are in the collection but that you haven’t had the chance to really look at or decipher. The whole process is like teaching; you have to educate yourself in order to interpret your materials. You’ve got to dig in.”
However, Bohlmann and Hosselkus risked a non-traditional approach when developing their exhibit. Instead of starting with the pieces, they began
with a broad topic. They then took that broad concept and began narrowing it down to get a better picture of what the exhibit would look like.
First, they decided to look at the topic hemispherically and quickly realized that Cuba was the most logical point of connection within the Latin American collections.
“Our Latin American collections are particularly strong for the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and we recently acquired a significant Cuban historical collection,” said Hosselkus. “I thought, ‘This collection is perfect for this exhibition. It became evident pretty quickly that Cuba would be the focal point for the Latin American side.”
The curators decided to focus on the 19th century, in part because there was more material in the collections to choose from. They were also interested in portraying the complex landscape of emancipation across that long period of time.
From there, the pair decided that they wanted their exhibit to forefront the actors who populated the age of emancipation, from activists and elites to resisters and revolutionaries. With that direction, they began sussing out pieces from their collections that fit the concept. Each time they found an item that could potentially fit their criteria, they would ask, Whose voice is heard through this object? What story is being told here?
Searching out and connecting the pieces
After narrowing down the scope of the exhibit, Bohlmann realized that she had recently acquired a collection of letters that could fit well into the exhibit. The correspondence chronicles an illegal conspiracy between a group of Americans in Kentucky and a Venezuelan-born military officer named Narciso López to overthrow Spanish rule and add Cuba to the United States.
“It connected the North American story to the Cuban story in this context of slavery and the expansion of slavery,” said Bohlmann. “It was pretty obscure but interesting and relevant to the story we wanted to tell.”
While the letters did a great job of telling a story that connected North America to Cuba, they aren’t very visually interesting and can also be difficult to read. So, the curators set out to find additional materials. They were able to acquire a hand-colored engraving of López to add a visual component to the exhibit. They also discovered a diary written by J.E. Hernández Pérez, who participated in the invasion attempts on Cuba led by López. Pérez lived in New York at the time he penned the diary inside a New York City Bank account book.
“We had the Kentucky/American side represented, but to have somebody from Cuba who was living in New York at the time, writing from his perspective—that was pretty amazing,” said Bohlmann. “He wrote about the Cubans who were waiting for the Americans to show up for this invasion, and to provide arms and munitions.”
Finding the diary was unexpected. According to Hosselkus, it is not typical to come across an item that is so closely connected to something that you already have. “We could not have asked for a more relevant source. The diary contributes to this case in a key way.”
The letters, image and diary occupy just one of the display cases for Making and Unmaking Emancipation in Cuba and the United States. Other cases highlight different actors with images, books, and even a Cuban baseball periodical. Each item brings attention to a different voice telling a piece of the larger story of emancipation during the 19th century.
For Bohlmann, letting sources drive the exhibit and having the time to put everything together are two of the major factors in the success of the exhibition.
“In the end, I think it was a good approach because it did take us a while to come up with the protagonist. To figure out, ‘Who’s the voice here? What is their perspective? How does it fit with other voices?’ That happened close to the end of the process,” she said.
The final picture
Making and Unmaking Emancipation in Cuba and the United States helps viewers better understand emancipation in the 19th century through the perspectives and voices of the actors highlighted in each display case.
The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, has attracted visitors from across campus. The co-curators have hosted an undergraduate English class studying the history of enslavement, a graduate-level archival theory class, and visitors on Football Fridays.
“We gave the graduate students a behind-the-scenes tour and discussed how you develop an exhibition,” said Hosselkus. “Their particular interest was in the power that archives hold, their ability to retain the historical record and to some degree, the power and authority that curators hold when they tell stories with those materials.”
There will be a panel discussion about the exhibit on November 30 from 4:30–7:00 p.m. in 102 Hesburgh Library, Rare Books and Special Collections. Similar to the exhibit’s development, the programming around Making and Unmaking Emancipation in Cuba and the United States is unique.
The panel will feature Adriana Chira, associate professor of Atlantic world history at Emory University, Aisha Finch, associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Emory University, and Zachary Sell, assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Notre Dame. It will be moderated by Notre Dame history professor Karen Graubart. They will discuss challenges and opportunities in connecting broad audiences to new scholarly findings in the study of transatlantic slavery. There will be a curator tour prior to the panel and a reception to follow.
Making and Unmaking Emancipation in Cuba and the United States will remain on display in 102 Hesburgh Library, Rare Books and Special Collections through December 15.