A new exhibition opening Dec. 13 marks the beginning of a months-long transformation of public spaces in the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building into an experience for visitors that merges cutting-edge technology with the knowledge and inspiration embodied in the Library’s unparalleled collections and curators.
“Exploring the Early Americas,” which features items from the Jay I. Kislak Collection and Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 World Map—the first document of any kind to use the word “America”—focuses on the history and legacies of the Americas and the impact of European contact, culture and conquest. It opens Thursday, Dec. 13
, in the Northwest Galleries of the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C. The exhibition is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday–Saturday.
The ongoing exhibition presents a significant collection gathered over a half-century by Florida collector Jay I. Kislak that includes rare books, manuscripts, historic documents, maps, paintings, prints and artifacts dating from 1500 B.C. to the early decades of the United States. The Kislak Collection was donated to the Library in 2004. Items in the collection relate to the southeastern United States, the Caribbean, Mexico, Guatemala and portions of the rest of the Americas. Like the Jay I. Kislak Collection itself, the exhibition provides a glimpse into the complex and fascinating past of the Americas, as well as insight into American Indian cultures, the drama of the encounters between those cultures and European explorers and settlers, and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the two worlds. The exhibition also explores the growth of knowledge, particularly in natural history and geography, resulting from the encounter.
“With this exhibition, the Library of Congress is embarking on a new interactive experience for visitors that will bring our collections to life as never before, in ways that will instill greater meaning and open new horizons of imagination,” said James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress. “‘Exploring the Early Americas’ will be a fascinating and thought-provoking journey through early chapters in our history, using an illuminating variety of formats.”
“Exploring the Early Americas” covers three major themes. “Pre-contact America” provides a glimpse into the cultures and history of the Americas before the European arrival, with emphasis on urban landscapes, rituals and ceremonies, Maya writing and language, recorded histories and calendars and charts. “Explorations and Encounters” features items documenting such discoverers as Columbus, Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro and their contact and conquest, respectively, of the Taino, Aztec and Incan peoples. “Aftermath of the Encounters” offers insight into the far-reaching impacts that resulted from this meeting of the European and American cultures.
The exhibition opens with an audio-visual presentation that highlights and identifies key items visitors will find inside. Seven high-tech interactive displays will augment the artifacts, along with two hands-on stations where patrons can delve deeper into the collection and explore the history it represents.
Among the most significant elements of the exhibition are Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 World Map, which was the first document of any kind on which the name “America” appears and the first map to depict a separate and full Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean; and his 1516 Carta Marina or Navigators’ Chart, another large world map. Also on display will be the Schöner Sammelbund, a portfolio that contained the two world maps and other cartographic materials. The Schöner portfolio was stored in a German castle for nearly 400 years, until it was discovered in 1901. An interactive display enables visitors to discover more about each map by accessing map highlights linking to curator insights.
Other highlights include:
• The Tortuguero Box, a seventh-century Maya wood artifact that is intricately carved with images and inscription. A companion interactive illustrates how dynastic history has been recorded on such artifacts, enabling visitors to decipher the meaning of these unusual written records of a culture.
• George Washington’s diary, a 1762 farm diary written by Washington on the blank pages of a Farmer’s Almanac and one of only five such diaries that is not already in the Library’s collections. The volume features details from the everyday life of the future general and president.
• The Conquest of Mexico paintings, eight large mural-size works created in the second half of the 17th century depicting the story of Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, 1519–1522. The accompanying interactive allows visitors to access information to uncover the stories, events and characters depicted in the artwork.
• Two printings of the Columbus letter reporting on his discoveries: the 1493 Latin and the 1494 Basel edition, the latter of which has the first purported illustrations of the New World.
• An unpublished 16th-century five-page autograph letter by Bishop Bartolome de Las Casas, one of his early pleas for better treatment of indigenous peoples of the Americas.
• “Buccaneers of America,” written by Alexandre Exquemelin in 1678, gives an eyewitness account of the daring deeds of French, Dutch and English pirates raiding Spanish ships and colonies in the Caribbean. Page-by-page technology allows visitors to virtually “turn” the pages of this book, read and hear the translated text and zoom in on maps and illustrations.
• “Historia Naturae Maxime Peregrine Libri,” written by Juan Eusebio Nieremberg in 1635, was the first attempt to describe and categorize the flora and fauna of North and South America. Visitors can virtually turn the pages of this rare book in an interactive display to view a selection of the animals and plants discovered in the New World and learn about the customs and rites of the Aztecs and Incans.
• A calendar interactive allows patrons to transform dates, such as their date of birth, to a Mayan or other culture’s calendar.
“Exploring the Early Americas” is the first exhibition that in 2008 will become part of a broader and immersive new experience for visitors to the Library of Congress. The experience will also feature the exhibits “Creating the United States” and “Thomas Jefferson’s Library”; interactive stations for detailed exploration of public spaces of the Thomas Jefferson building, including art, architecture and historic bibles; game-based learning activities; and a parallel online experience that will offer unprecedented new pathways into the Library’s collections. An underground passageway directly connecting the Library of Congress to the upcoming Capitol Visitor Center will help introduce vast new audiences to the missions and collections of the Library.
For a preview of “Exploring the Early Americas,” visit www.loc.gov/exhibits/kislak/
to view items from the Library’s 2005 exhibition “The Cultures and History of the Americas,” also featuring artifacts from the Jay I. Kislak Collection.
Jay I. Kislak was born in Hoboken, N.J., and received a degree in economics from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania in 1942. After serving as a naval aviator in World War II, he joined the real estate brokerage and mortgage banking business started by his father in 1906. He began his collection some 50 years ago after moving from New Jersey to South Florida, where he formed the J. I. Kislak Mortgage Corporation in Miami. What began with books and maps to hang on his walls grew to more than 3,000 items of historical importance. He and his wife, Jean, an art historian and consultant, continue to travel the world amassing items for their collections.
In addition to the ongoing “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition, the Library will be hosting related programs, including a symposium, “Pirates and Corsairs of the Americas in History and Literature,” on Saturday, Dec. 8, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
in the Mumford Room, sixth floor of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C.
The Library also hosts an annual Kislak lecture, a component of the Kislak American Studies program established in 2004 and organized by the John W. Kluge Center. Past scholars have included Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond and British historian Felipe Fernandéz-Armesto.
Another component of the program is the Kislak Fellowship, inviting qualified scholars to pursue research that contributes significantly to a greater understanding of the cultures and histories of the Americas as evidenced in the Library’s collections, especially the Jay I. Kislak Collection. These residential fellowships are awarded for a period of up to eight months and include a stipend of $4,000 a month. For more information and an application form, visit www.loc.gov/kluge
The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Jay and Jean Kislak, John and Maria Kluge, with additional support from Microsoft Corp. and 3M.
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