Scholarship as a living process

Exhibition shows UChicago researchers in mid-thought in Mexico

Researching Mexico: University of Chicago Field Explorations in Mexico, 1896-2014 is on display in the Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery through October 4, 2014. An associated web exhibit is available online. Co-curator Seonaid Valiant, UChicago History Ph.D. Candidate 2014, explains how her dissertation research and other academic experiences influenced her approach to creating the exhibition.

Has field work in Mexico been particularly important to University of Chicago faculty? Why focus a Special Collections exhibition on this subject?

The relationship between the University of Chicago and Mexico has always been incredibly significant—particularly for the social sciences—but that relationship isn’t as well known as it could be. For more than a hundred years, University of Chicago professors across many disciplines have developed important, ongoing working relationships with the people, academic institutions, and government of Mexico. As a result, the Special Collections Research Center has developed collections of fascinating documents and artifacts that have been donated by professors over the years.

Howard Taylor Ricketts, Mexico City, 1910

Howard Taylor Ricketts, Mexico City, 1910

For many scholars, Mexico afforded opportunities and adventures—particularly for researchers in the field—that were unavailable elsewhere. Telling the personal stories of these researchers and scholars highlights how passionate, interesting, and dramatic the life of the mind can be. Howard Taylor Ricketts’s tragic story, for example, demonstrates how this work can be both crucially important and dangerous. Invited by the Mexican government in 1909 to research the cause of a typhus outbreak in Mexico City, Ricketts worked with Mexican doctors, nurses, and government officials to confirm the source of the problem. He succeeded, but not before he contracted a fatal case of typhus. We included the funeral ribbon placed on his coffin by the Mexican government to show how his sacrifice was recognized.

Were some of the faculty members featured in the exhibition important to your development as a graduate student?

Curating this exhibition was a way of connecting my own work back to that of my predecessors and highlighting the tradition of Mexican scholarship at the University. For example, Friedrich Katz, whose papers are part of the exhibition, was my mentor when I first entered the History Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. When I knew him, near the end of his life, he was a world-renowned and well-respected scholar of the Mexican revolution, but as I sorted through the unprocessed boxes that contained his papers, I was fascinated to discover correspondence detailing his struggle, as an ambitious academic, to leave East Germany. He finally found a home at the University of Chicago, where he could pursue scholarship without the threat of anti-Semitism and censorship. After the publication of his biography of Pancho Villa in 1998, Katz was named an honorary citizen of the state of Chihuahua and awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican government.

How is the exhibition connected to your dissertation research?

In my research, which is focused on foreign archaeologists battling with Mexican government officials at the turn of the 20th century, I explore how scholastic ideas develop and travel among scholars informally before transitioning to more formal discourse and then finally to publication. I trace these ideas through the discussions, friendships, and rivalries that scholars have had with each other and with government officials. That has made me particularly attuned to the idea of scholarship as a dynamic process, inflected by personal relationships and private lives, and academic discourse as something that has to be actively constructed.

Redfield family

Redfield family in Mexico, 1929

In keeping with this interest, many of the items selected for this show represent the research process rather than final publications. One of the goals of the exhibition is to give the public a glimpse of scholarship in action and to present it as a living process. The papers and artifacts created by these professors during the course of their field work give us access to their reflections and preparations in various phases of their work. In the exhibition, we’ve aimed to capture these thinkers in mid-thought, before their final conclusions have been drawn, and to present their intellectual achievements as emerging from a process of engagement with the raw materials of their research. Research notes, correspondence, and diaries give a more intimate, nuanced portrayal of each scholar’s development and place their intellectual work in a fuller context.

For example, the letters from the anthropologist Robert Redfield to his wife, Margaret Park Redfield, interweave thoughts about his work in Chichen Itza in 1932 with family concerns and show how important his wife’s role as confidant and sounding board was as he began to develop his scholastic plans in an informal way.

How did you come to co-curate the exhibition, and what made you interested in doing so?

I was delighted when Kathleen Feeney, Head of Archives Processing and Digital Access in Special Collections, invited me to co-curate the exhibition with her. Kathleen knew that I was already familiar with many of the relevant collections, both because of the research I had conducted for my dissertation and because of the work I had done there as a graduate student archives processing assistant in Special Collections. One of the things that drew me to study history was the excitement of working directly with documents and artifacts in archives. Curating this exhibition with Kathleen, I knew, would give me a chance to share some of my favorite items and the stories that went with them, as well as my passion for the materials and the mission of Special Collections.

Which are your favorites?

The Frederick Starr notebooks, the corridos in the Robert Redfield papers and the lantern slides in the Adolf Carl Noé papers. These, along with the diaries, linguistic note cards, letters, and portraits in some of the other collections, tell a larger story about the freedom of investigation that University of Chicago scholars have consistently found in Mexico.

Chiapas animals and index card

Toy animals used to identify indigenous words, circa 1950s

Did you make any new discoveries as you curated the exhibition?

Curating Researching Mexico brought home for me how important it is for today’s scholars to be able to work directly with archives and original artifacts associated with their predecessors. Many of the most interesting items on display were only discovered in the process of preparing for the exhibit, by methodically investigating the Special Collections holdings.

For example, we were surprised to uncover the collection of toy animals that now forms one of the exhibition’s most unusual displays. In their field work, the linguists in the Chiapas Project asked native indigenous language speakers to identify these toy animals in their own languages. Finding the animals and the lists of translations not only delighted us but helped us to understand the process that the researchers used to collect words one at a time, finally gathering enough materials for textbooks in Tzeltal, Yucatec, and Quiche.

In bringing unseen materials like these to the public eye, we want to hint at the unexpected connections and discoveries that can be made through archival research and encourage students and scholars to examine primary sources in archives for themselves. Finding these little-known stories can be a thrilling experience, and preserving and sharing them with other scholars, academics, students, and the public is an important part of the work of the University.

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