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Scholar: Will libraries of the future preserve cultural heritage?

By Harry Ransom Center

Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.
Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.

Michele V. Cloonan, Professor at Simmons College and Editor-in-Chief of Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, presented the talk “Exeunt Libri: Will Libraries of the Future Preserve Cultural Heritage?” for the 2013 Donald G. Davis, Jr. Lecture on Thursday, October 17. Below, she shares her thoughts about preservation.

 

Preservation is all around us. It encompasses continuity and change. I first encountered issues of preservation as a child living in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side. Three particular touchstones have stayed with me. One was the dismantling of the Fifth Army Base on the Promontory Point. While there was wide-spread support for it to be closed, some people advocated for the preservation of parts of the installation, so that there would be a permanent record of the site.

 

A second touchstone was the Museum of Science and Industry, my next-door neighbor. I explored every outside nook of it as a child and was intrigued by what little I knew of its history. Built as The Palace of Fine Arts, it was constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. One had to be captivated by this building, the only one to survive the vast White City.

 

Finally, the demolition of a beautiful brownstone apartment complex across the street from my house, which was replaced by a less-attractive high-rise, made me think about preservation as I watched people collect tiles and light fixtures right before the wrecking ball destroyed the building.

 

In ways like this, we are all touched by preservation. Each community shares its own stories of the old—and the newer. Most communities contain some legacies of their past, which may become “Places of Memory” (Lieux de Memoires, as Pierre Nora refers to them). Other historical artifacts are destroyed, or their sites become neglected. We contemplate the presence, as well as the absence, of cultural artifacts. They are part of our memory.

 

The rise and fall of physical monuments are part of the preservation continuum of cultural heritage.

 

As an adult, I have written about preservation, focusing mostly on libraries, archives, and museums. For my talk at the Harry Ransom Center, I will focus on preservation, memory, and libraries. Libraries represent many things. They may be storehouses of books and manuscripts, information centers, classrooms, and community living rooms. At the same time, the library exists in many physical and digital forms, some analog, others virtual. As a metaphor, the library may represent a fictional place (Jorge Luis Borges), or the concept of a library may occur within other metaphors such as the World Brain (H. G. Wells), the Memex (“memory” + “index”) (Vannevar Bush), or the Internet.

 

The Ransom Center is the perfect place in which to consider the interplay between preservation, memory, and libraries because it has been a leader in the American preservation and conservation movement; a preeminent collector of books, manuscripts, and objects; and a research center. Its original “temple-of-knowledge” architecture/building is now complemented by dramatic accents of glass, which invite us to reflect on its collections in new ways.

 

Curator of Norman Bel Geddes exhibition discusses influence of the industrial designer

By Ady Wetegrove

 

Donald Albrecht, exhibition organizer and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, discusses industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’s influence on the American landscape. Albrecht—editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams)—emphasizes the breadth of the Bel Geddes collection at the Ransom Center, which includes Bel Geddes’s plans and sketches of his futurist visions.

The exhibition Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which was on view at the Ransom Center in fall 2012, opens at the Museum of the City of New York today. To celebrate this traveling exhibition, the Ransom Center is giving away a free “I Have Seen the Future” totebag to all Ransom Center visitors, while supplies last. The galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.

Norman Mailer’s biographer J. Michael Lennon discusses research for his book “Norman Mailer: A Double Life”

By Abigail Cain

Cover of “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” by J. Michael Lennon.
Cover of “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” by J. Michael Lennon.

In January 1971, J. Michael Lennon wrote a letter of encouragement to Norman Mailer after watching the author get into a raucous televised debate with Gore Vidal. Mailer responded, sparking a lifelong correspondence between the pair.

 

Lennon went on to become Mailer’s personal archivist and authorized biographer, as well as Emeritus Vice President and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University. He has written and edited a number of books about Mailer, including Norman Mailer: Works and Days (2000). His most recent book, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, comes out today. This biography draws on unpublished documents, including Mailer’s letters, as well as Lennon’s personal relationship with the author. In 2009-2010, Lennon visited the Ransom Center on a fellowship funded by the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund to conduct research for the biography. Cultural Compass spoke with Lennon about his new book, his work in the Ransom Center’s archive, what first attracted him to Mailer’s writing, and more.

 

You knew Mailer well before starting work on Norman Mailer: A Double Life. While researching and writing, were you ever surprised by anything you learned about him?

 

I was surprised at the intensity of his depression after his second novel, Barbary Shore, received extremely negative reviews in 1951. He became more depressed (but not clinically) than I had previously thought and actually investigated the possibility of working in a prison or becoming a lawyer. The other things that surprised me were the extent of his many passionate love affairs and the number of young writers, hundreds of them, with whom he corresponded, and encouraged, something that went on from the 1950s until his death in 2007.

 

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

 

I hope readers will see how immersed Mailer was in the great events and issues of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first years of the next one. He saw and wrote about World War II, the Cold War and the espionage and counter-espionage that accompanied it, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, technology and the environmental movement, and the early space exploration effort. Mailer not only wrote about these things, he also debated them publicly on just about every major talk show in existence. He is the most important public intellectual from the literary world in my lifetime. He was also a terrific biographer and wrote memorable biographical books and essays on a score of iconic figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Hemingway. Also some infamous individuals—Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hitler. And Jesus Christ, in his 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son.

 

What first drew you to Norman Mailer as an author?

 

His daring, his edgy style, his exploration of his identity, and his self-awareness.

 

The Mailer archive is the largest single-author collection at the Ransom Center. Have you been through every box? How do you organize and prioritize your work in the archive?

 

Yes, I think I have handled every piece of paper in it. Building on the pioneering work of Robert F. Lucid, my mentor, my wife and I organized Mailer’s papers and then helped the Ransom Center’s staff create the Mailer finding aid. During my several visits to the Center, I used the finding aid to organize my request list so that I could spend my time reading and note-taking. The system devised by Steve Mielke and his team made my research efforts considerably easier. I am indebted to the Ransom Center for expert and thoughtful help over the past eight years.

James Turrell display at the Ransom Center complements university’s new Skyspace installation

By Chelsea Weathers

James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.
James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.

 

On October 15, a selection of books and artworks associated with artist James Turrell will go on view in the Ransom Center’s third-floor Director’s Gallery. Included in the display is Deep Sky, a suite of seven aquatints that Turrell executed with printer Peter Kneubühler, and that were published by Peter Blum Edition in 1985. The Ransom Center’s edition of Deep Sky is one of several portfolios in the Peter Blum Edition art collection, which showcases Blum’s collaborations with contemporary artists such as John Baldessari, Eric Fischl, and the collective General Idea.

 

Like many of the artists with whom Blum has worked, Turrell is not best known for his works on paper. Throughout his career, which has spanned half a century, Turrell has made a name for himself constructing spectacular installations that focus on light and space—or more specifically, the way the eye perceives different types of light in different spaces. This past summer, three major U.S. museums mounted simultaneous retrospectives of Turrell’s work, which includes illusionistic light projections and fully immersive spaces that bathe the viewer in colored light. For nearly 35 years, he has been working to transform Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in northern Arizona, into a series of rooms and tunnels that open onto vistas of the desert sky.

 

In addition to Roden Crater, Turrell has executed scores of site-specific installations all over the world. On The University of Texas at Austin campus, he recently completed a Skyspace entitled The Color Inside, which will open to the public on October 19 as part of the University’s Landmarks program. The work, like all of Turrell’s Skyspaces, is architectural—a structure built with its location in mind—and it is intended to facilitate a specific viewing experience of the sky above. At sunrise and sunset, a carefully programmed sequence of colored LED lights causes the eye to perceive the shifting colors of the sky as a series of dramatically different hues. Emerging from a Skyspace light sequence, a viewer is often more attuned to the surrounding environment—as if the mind, used to believing that the sky is blue without ever taking notice of its true color, has been recalibrated.

 

For an artist so invested in utilizing light and color as the materials of his art, it is somewhat surprising that the prints in Deep Sky are absent of color. The seven aquatints are meticulously printed, with velvety swaths of black ink and subtle variations of grey. But these prints, which represent seven views of Roden Crater, are explorations of space and scale and how they factor into one’s perception. The prints serve as experimental renderings; they are nearly abstract pictures of how a viewer might apprehend space at Roden Crater.

 

The catalog published to accompany Turrell’s recent retrospectives includes the artist’s description of a visit to a garden in Japan:

 

I noticed a small, low, triangular window, which provided another view of the garden. The view opening onto the same part of the garden as a larger window above, except the view was scaled down. The small rocks appeared as mountains, blades of grass became wooded hillsides and the bonsai looked like large trees. The microcosm had become a macrocosm, which perfectly echoed the motifs and forms of the larger view. I then realized that the garden should be viewed from numerous vantage points.

 

The Deep Sky prints are just a few examples of the numerous vantage points that Turrell has explored in his work with Roden Crater. Ultimately, there is no way to view the site all at once, but in the microcosms represented in these superbly printed aquatints, one can at least begin to understand the completeness of Turrell’s vision.

 

James Turrell: Deep Sky will be on view in the Director’s Gallery, on the third floor of the Ransom Center, until December 13. The Director’s Gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

 

James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.
James Turrell, Untitled, from “Deep Sky.” Published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1985. Courtesy Peter Blum Edition, New York and James Turrell Studio.