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“Seward’s Folly” – “Walrussia” – “The New National Ice House”: In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia, 1867-2017

Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Second Floor
Exhibit Dates: April 24 – August 1, 2017

Why did Russia sell Alaska? Why did the United States purchase it? And how did the American public and press react to this purchase in 1867, so soon after the end of the Civil War?

Signing of the Treaty on 30 March 1867

Signing of the Treaty on 30 March 1867
Robert S. Chew (Chief Clerk, State Department), William Seward (Secretary of State), William Hunter (Second Assistant Secretary of State), Vladimir Bodisko (Secretary of the Russian Legation), Eduard Stoeckl (Russian Ambassador to the US), Charles Sumner (Senator from Massachusetts), Frederick Seward (Assistant Secretary of State)

WHY SELL? By the end of the 1850s, after its defeat in the Crimean War, Russia’s tsarist government had no further use for the Russian American Company and began searching for a buyer of the colonies in northwest America, preferably not the British, Russia’s greatest rival in the Pacific. By 1863 Russia concluded that the Russian colonies in America were “at a perfect standstill as regards colonization, hunting, trade, and civic development, and that, generally speaking, the Russian American Company has far from justified the expectations which the government had placed in it” (S. B. Okun. The Russian-American Company.
Tr. by Carl Ginzburg. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951: 232-33.)

WHY BUY?  William H. Seward, 24th United States Secretary of State (1861-1868), saw the purchase of Alaska as another step in the expansion of the United States in the west, as did Charles Sumner, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts whose 2 1/2 hour speech to the Committee on Foreign Relations presented all of the facts then known about Russian America (i.e. Alaska). He articulated four advantages pertinent to the future interests of the United States: Advantages to the Pacific Coast, Extension of Dominion, Extension of Republican Institutions, and Anticipation of Great Britain.

Treasury draft no. 9759

Treasury draft no. 9759, the check that paid for the purchase of Alaska.
The check, in the amount of $7,200,000, amounted to two cents per acre, and is dated more than a year after the signing of the Treaty of the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America

Although the Treaty to purchase Alaska was ratified by a 37-2 margin, at a cost of $7,200,000, it caused a great deal of pro and con exposition in the nation’s papers, with the purchase being labeled as “Seward’s Folly,” “Icebergia,” “Walrussia,” “The Nation’s Ice House.” It was well into the 20th century before Alaska’s purchase was generally acknowledged to be of great strategic and financial importance.

Witness: Holocaust Memorial Books

Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Fourth Floor
Exhibit Dates: April 21 – April 30, 2017

Illustration from yizkor book

Yizker-bukh fun der Zshelekhover Yidisher kehile, “Memorial Book for the Jewish Community of Zhelekhov”

In the wake of the destruction of the Jewish communities of Europe and the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi Regime, survivors sought to preserve the history of these cities and towns and the lives of their residents. The yizkor book, or community memorial volume, became a preferred method of preservation. This one-case exhibit displays yizkor books from the University of Chicago Library’s collection in commemoration of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), which begins at sundown on April 23, 2017.

Publication of such volumes began immediately after the war and peaked in the 1960s, though volumes continue to be published today, often as translations of earlier volumes. Yizkor books, sifre zikaron in Hebrew, yisker bikher or pinkeysim in Yiddish, were written primarily by Holocaust survivors in their countries of resettlement, typically by landsmanshaftn, mutual aid organizations comprised of immigrants from the same town or region. It is estimated that 600-800 such volumes have been published, mostly in Israel and the United States. The majority were written in Hebrew or Yiddish, sometimes both, and some with a summary or introduction in English.

Yizkor books are typically divided into four parts: the town and its inhabitants  before the war, the events during the war, the fate of the town and its people after the war, and a necrology. They were meant to serve as witnesses both to the pre-War Jewish community and the crimes of the Holocaust, as such they include multiple autobiographical accounts of survivors, maps of city before the War, and photographs of the murdered and of survivors, such as those who served in the Israeli army and who edited the volume.  The volumes often incorporate illustrations that draw heavily of flame imagery, referencing the Jewish custom of lighting a candle at the time of death and every year on the anniversary of the death of a family member.

Tensions in Renaissance Cities

Exhibition dates: March 27 – June 9, 2017
Location: Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637

Cicero. Philosophical treatises

Cicero. Philosophical treatises, ca. 1400. Ms. 956. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

Venice, Florence, Rome, Mexico City, Geneva, London: the rapidly transforming cities of the Renaissance used art and literature to express their growing power, and growing pains. In the centuries of recovery after the Black Death, wealth, trade, and technology accelerated exponentially. Urban centers existed in a web of interdependence, in which the borders of fluctuating kingdoms were overlaid by geographies of mercantile connections, and information networks whose influence exploded with the arrival of the printing press. This new invention let news of new discoveries or disasters sweep through Europe in weeks, rather than years.

Moving geographically, this exhibit charts the interconnected tensions of great capitals from Venice to Mexico City. As Venice looked both eastward towards Islamic cultures of the Mediterranean and inward toward the microcosmic tensions of diversifying populations, Mexico City grappled with cultural and religious clashes between native Mesoamerican and imported European traditions. Florence and Rome looked backward toward the golden dream of antiquity and upward into a celestial geography. Magic, science, humanism and theology each played a role in filling in the blanks in current knowledge of the world and the universe. Concurrently, Geneva saw conflict in shifts from Latin to the vernacular and changing Calvinist and Catholic devotional practices, and London sought to establish itself as a major intellectual center that was both in dialogue with and distinct from continental centers.

Arch of Titus

“Arch of Titus.” Etching and engraving. Cavalieri, Giovanni Battista de’ Dosio, Giovanni Antonio, engraver [1569]. From the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

The treasures presented in this exhibit from the Special Collections Research Center and Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago offer a look into the Renaissance not as a single, coherent cultural movement, but rather a set of many simultaneous and often contradictory developments across scholarship, politics, and religion. Many of the cultural, political, and religious tensions experienced during this period are just as relevant today. In an effort to create a neat narrative, the history of a period can be cleaned up too much. By examining the nuances and complexities of the early modern past, this exhibition hopes to shed light on just how messy history can be in both the past and the present.

Curators:  Ada Palmer, Assistant Professor, Department of History and the College, The University of Chicago; Hilary Barker, PhD student, Department of Art History, The University of Chicago; Margo Weitzman, MAPH’15, The University of Chicago

Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m., and, when University of Chicago classes are in session, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.

 

 

 

 

 

Related Events

Curator’s Open House for the Renaissance Society of America Conference

March 29, 2017, 12 noon – 5 p.m.
Special Collections Research Center, Regenstein Library, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago

Curators Ada Palmer, Hilary Barker, and Margo Weitzman will be on hand to discuss and give tours of the exhibition Tensions in Renaissance Cities.

Free and open to the public.  Those attending the Renaissance Society of America Conference can sign up for transportation on the conference events page.

Library Society Lecture and Exhibition Viewing

May 10, 2017 – 5 p.m.
Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery and Room 122, Regenstein Library, 1100 East 57th Street, Chicago

Lecture by Ada Palmer, Assistant Professor, Department of History and the College, The University of Chicago

Use of Images and Media Contact

Images from the exhibition included on this page are available for download by members of the media and are reserved for editorial use in connection with University of Chicago Library exhibitions, programs, or related news.