In 1973, visiting authors and authors began signing one of the Harry Ransom Center’s doors between two manuscript stack rooms on the fifth floor. At the suggestion of a staffer, the authors’ door was inspired by the signed Greenwich Village Bookshop door in the Center’s collection. When one side of the Ransom Center’s door filled up a few years ago, the other side was sanded down so that it could be used as well. To date, more than 150 visitors have signed the door, from American writer Alice Adams to Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
ESPN’s Longhorn Network recently explored the history of the door with the Ransom Center’s Danielle Brune Sigler, assistant director and curator for academic programs.
In April, Helen Moore, Fellow and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, spoke about the history of the King James translation at the Harry Ransom Center. The talk is now online on YouTube.
Moore was lead curator of Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible, an exhibition held at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in 2011. Her illustrated talk addressed the role played by Oxford in the translation of the King James Bible, the methods used by the translators, and some of the items displayed at the Oxford exhibition.
The event was co-sponsored by Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford and The Wall Street Journal.
Writer Jim Crace, author of Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), speaks about ephermera in archives and the narratives and stories they provide.
Crace elaborates about a piece of driftwood found in his archive that contains a note that was later incorporated into his novel Signals of Distress (1996).
Enter by July 13 for a chance to win a signed copy of Crace’s Continent by visiting the Ransom Center’s Facebook page.
Crace will be in residence this fall at the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. He will give a public reading on December 6.
The Ransom Center has appointed Jessica S. McDonald, a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as its new chief curator of photography. McDonald begins her position at the Ransom Center in September.
As the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, McDonald will oversee a collection that spans from the world’s earliest-known photograph to prints from some of the great masters of the twenty-first century. The Center’s photography holdings include the Helmut and Alison Gernsheim collection, a seminal collection of the history of photography and one of the world’s premier sources for the study and appreciation of photography.
In addition to the history of photography, the Ransom Center’s photography collection focuses on photojournalism and documentary photography, with holdings of more than 5 million prints and negatives, supplemented by books, manuscripts, journals, and memorabilia of photographers.
“McDonald’s broad experiences — from teaching to curatorial — confirmed that she can lead our photography department, build the collection, support research, and plan exhibitions,” said Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. “The possibilities under her guidance are exciting.”
McDonald’s professional experience includes affiliations with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Visual Studies Workshop and George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. In 2011, McDonald received an Ansel Adams Research Fellowship from the Center for Creative Photography.
The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.
Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”
Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.
When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.
My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?
The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.
Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.
Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.
Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.
From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.
Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.
Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.
Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.
“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”
“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”
Mary Baughman, a Harry Ransom Center book conservator, hunts bugs. When she discovers them in materials at the Center, she destroys them, typically with a 72-hour stint in a freezer at 20 degrees centigrade or below. But don’t ask Baughman which of the cellulose-munching bugs she wishes didn’t exist at all. “That’s just silly,” she says. “There’s a place on this earth for all of them.” As long as that place isn’t the Ransom Center’s collection.
When boxes of materials first arrive at the Center, teams of conservators and archivists gather at tables in the quarantine room in the basement to inspect each folder, envelope, book, and slip of paper, looking for telltale signs of bugs—as well as for mold, another great enemy of archives. Finding and identifying the bugs in the works takes the thoroughness of a forensic pathologist and a familiarity with frass (insect excrement). Beetles leave behind a fine granular powder, while silverfish leave tiny black flecks. Big ragged bites from the paper, brown splatters of vomit, and shiny brown egg sacks are evidence of past or present roaches.
Despite possible encounters with wood-boring beetles and fungus and such, opening the boxes, even for longtime inspectors, is still as exciting as Christmas. Sure, considering the sheer volume of material inspected, some boxes yield the gift equivalent of socks or steak knives, but others bear unexpected treasures such as photographic negatives of Frida Kahlo or handwritten pages of notes by a little-known writer on her lengthy conversations with Diego Rivera.
Many materials arrive carefully packed and preserved, while others appear to have been swept pell-mell off a cluttered table directly into the box—chips of ceiling plaster, used tissues, and all.
Still, Baughman says very few materials arrive with full-blown infestations, recalling only two in the past ten years—a box from Puerto Rico that brought its entourage of termites with it and a collection of photographs from San Antonio that Baughman remembers as “pretty gnarly.”
The conservation department’s program to intercept insects before they enter the building has been around for more than 30 years, growing in part out of the discovery in the 1980s of drugstore beetles dining on several volumes of The Works of St. Augustine, printed in Venice in 1729. The initial treatment with moth balls—a standard of the times, but now obsolete—simply stunned the larvae, who recovered to eat again until finally meeting a chilly demise in a freezer.
The treatment of mold, a specialty of Olivia Primanis, the chief book conservator with the Center, has likewise changed tack over the years. “Previously, everyone tried to kill mold,” she says. But its ubiquity and tenacity proved that an impossible task. Now, mold is instead removed and contained—mainly by changing its environment by eliminating heat and, especially, humidity. But even when mold is removed—even if it could be killed—its properties, such as allergens and toxins, still remain. So moldy items are marked as such, to serve as a sort of disclaimer to patrons, who may then choose to wear a mask or even review moldy materials under a fume hood.
“Mold is harder to get rid of, but bugs are sneakier,” Baughman says. Case in point of this sly cunning: A Japanese book of law dating from the late nineteenth century with a tiny hole no bigger than a freckle in the spine. Open the book and the handiwork of a beetle larva is revealed, an inch-long tunnel snaking through the pages. But there will be no light at the end of this tunnel; the bug was stopped in its tracks via deep freeze.
Eliminating bugs in paper products may be a snap—especially in the Center’s walk-in freezer—but some materials, such as leather, ivory, and painted canvas or wood, can be damaged by freezing. Spraying with pesticides is not an option, as this can harm both collection materials and the scholars who stick their noses in them. Besides, treating with pesticides is seldom effective because bugs usually live within the materials, not on the surfaces.
Instead, materials that show signs of previous insect encampments may be placed under observation, like the painting on a wooden panel that Baughman has sealed in a double-sided Plexiglas frame so she can spot the possible emergence of adult beetles. And if the beetles do surface? Then what? The object might earn a four-month stretch in an oxygen-free environment.
And afterwards, you can trust that Baughman and the other conservators will still be keeping an eye on it.
This article, written by Suzy Banks, originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Ransom Edition.