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Drama in the Archives: Humanities class fosters undergraduate research

By Harry Ransom Center

Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.

 

In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.

 

For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.

 

Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.

 

“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”

 

As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the ‘big glass buildings with the pretty pictures’ on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibits on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.”

 

Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.

 

“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.

 

For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.

 

Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.

 

“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”

 

After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”

 

Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.

 

Several students from this class will present their research and experiences in upcoming posts in the “Notes from the Undergrad” series on this blog.

 

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Draw Me: A history of the illustrated Alice

By Alexandra Bass

Sir John Tenniel. Dalí. Yayoi Kusama. What do these artists of vastly different styles, mediums, and artistic movements have in common? Each, along with many other artists, has tried their hand at illustrating Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tale so whimsical it demands illustrations. Alice appeals to such a broad range of artists because the creative quality of the story gives artists freedom to interpret the look of the story in any way they please, and the book’s quirky sense of fun is irresistible.

 

The novel’s first illustrator was none other than its author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—alias Lewis Carroll—created a handwritten manuscript with 37 illustrations for the story’s muse, Alice Liddell, after she asked him to write down the fantastical story he told her one lazy summer afternoon on a boat ride. Although somewhat amateurish, the ink illustrations depict a sweet, pretty Alice, not unlike the famous Tenniel illustrations. Indeed, Tenniel, a famous Victorian political cartoonist, and Dodgson worked closely together in creating the now-classic illustrations for the first published edition.

 

Tenniel’s classical and rather prim imagining of Alice remained the standard throughout the nineteenth century and still remains the most recognizable Alice illustration today. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that other illustrators tried their hands at Alice. These illustrations reflect the aesthetic of their time. Mabel Lucie Attwell’s 1910 rendering of Alice and Margaret W. Tarrant’s 1916 version are sweet and feminine and still very much geared toward a young audience.

 

By the middle of the century, illustrations of Alice became more experimental. German illustrator Wiltraud Jasper’s 1958 version is edgy and minimal, all in black and red. In 1969, iconic surrealist Salvador Dalí put his spin on Carroll’s story, creating a dreamy, abstract, and characteristically melty Wonderland in a melancholy color palate.

 

More recently, Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama has re-imagined Alice in her signature polka dots in a 2012 Penguin publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kusama steers away from the “classic” scenes of illustrations and instead focuses on details. For instance, the Mad Tea Party chapter features a red-and-black polka-dotted bowler hat instead of the traditional scene of the eccentric cast of characters tucking into high tea at a long table.

 

At the very onset of her story, Alice muses to herself about the importance of illustrations: “‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without any pictures?’” What use indeed? Would Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be the classic book and cultural phenomenon that it is without pictures? Likely not—both readers and illustrators alike have fun with the creative freedom offered by the Alice books.

 

See examples of some of these illustrations in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share with #aliceinaustin.

 

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Amplify the Harry Ransom Center!

By Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center is excited to announce its participation in this year’s Amplify Austin Day. Beginning on March 5 at 6 p.m., we will be asking for your help in raising $5,000 within a 24-hour period. We are proud to be a part of this year’s community-wide effort to give back to the city of Austin. So mark your calendars and help support your community and the Ransom Center on this day of giving!

 

Proceeds raised will be used to support the Ransom Center’s upcoming exhibitions and programming. The money raised will assist in:

 

  • developing future exhibitions
  • creating and launching web exhibitions
  • supporting teacher training opportunities and family-guide materials
  • publishing exhibition catalogs and companion books
  • collaborating with other museums

 

The Center’s exhibitions are free and open to the public. With your support, we can continue to share our world-renowned collections. Schedule a donation.

 

Photo by Maritza De La Pena.

“Curiouser & Curiouser!” Party

By Christine Lee

Thanks to the support of our members and sponsors “Curiouser & Curiouser!,” the opening party for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was a great success.

On Friday, February 13, guests enjoyed a whimsical evening of Alice-inspired activities. Music, film, vintage typewriters, and tea party treats brought the story to life. Guests dressed as their favorite characters to pose in the photo booth.

We encourage you to come back and visit the exhibition often. Additionally, continue the tea party at Wright Bros. Brew & Brew, re-create the “Drink Me” signature cocktails with Dripping Springs Vodka, or visit Austin Wine Merchant for their recommended party libations.

Follow us on Facebook to see if you were one of the lucky winners of the evening’s two prize packages. The “Mad Hatter’s Prize Package” featured local treats, including a stay at Austin’s Inn at Pearl Street, gift certificates and a selection of books and music from BookPeople and Waterloo Records, registration for MakeATX laser-cutting class, afternoon tea for two at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, and a gift certificate from Wright Bros. Brew & Brew.

Terra Toys curated a fantastic prize package that included a gift certificate, Wonderland finger puppets, playing cards, and more.

The Ransom Center would also like to thank the Austin Community Foundation for its generous exhibition support.

 

Image: Photo by Whitney Martin.

Mad Hatter Teas complement “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” exhibition

By Jennifer Tisdale

“It’s always tea time” according to the Mad Hatter. With this in mind, Four Seasons Hotel Austin is pleased to offer a special Alice-themed Mad Hatter Tea in conjunction with the Harry Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition.

 

Complementing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter Teas take place during the run of the exhibition on February 22, March 29, April 26, May 31, June 28, and July 5, 2015, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

 

Hosted in the Four Seasons Lobby Lounge, the teas feature creative treats, such as “Eat Me” carrot cupcakes, shortbread clock cookies, cheshire macarons, and queen of hearts cakes. Special decor, an “Alice in Wonderland” photobooth, and the classic movie playing on the big screen complete the whimsical event.

 

The Mad Hatter Teas are $42 per adult and $30 per child. Seats are limited. Reservations are required and can be made by contacting the Four Seasons at 512-478-4500.

 

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In the Galleries: “The Rectory Magazine”

By Danielle Sigler

The man who became famous as Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832. Dodgson, the third of 11 siblings, grew up in northern England surrounded by his brothers and sisters. Together they put on plays and created family publications like The Rectory Magazine, named for their home in Croft-on-Tees. Dodgson’s father was an Archdeacon in the Church of England and lived in a rectory, or a residence for the parish clergyman.

 

This edition of The Rectory Magazine includes essays, poems, and short stories, as well as hand-drawn and colored illustrations. The sense of humor and parody that appear in much of Carroll’s later work is already evident in The Rectory Magazine, produced when Dodgson was 18 years old.

 

Visitors to the Ransom Center’s exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6, can turn the pages of a digital version of The Rectory Magazine on a touchscreen in the galleries.

 

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Darwin Day: The Fossil Record of a Friendship

By Richard Oram

To mark Darwin Day today, we share one of the Ransom Center’s more interesting copies of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Center owns several first editions, but this particular one was sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, the most famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.” Herschel was a member of a great scientific family, which included the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; the Herschel papers are the most consulted history of science resources at the Center.

 

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries”—as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

 

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

 

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

 

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

 

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

 

My dear Sir John Herschel

 

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

 

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

 

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Meet the Staff: Diana Diaz Cañas, Photograph Conservator

By Marlene Renz

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Diana has a Bachelor of Arts in Conservation from Bogotá, Colombia and she specialized in Photograph conservation in Mexico City, Mexico. She has worked in private workshops and labs and came to the Ransom Center following her work at the Frida Kahlo Museum and the National School for Conservation (ENCRyM) both in Mexico City.

 

What do you like best about your job?

I like the fact that we can actually touch the objects and handle them carefully but with confidence. Usually when you go to a museum, you are not allowed to touch anything, you are only allowed to see and be very careful. In conservation, while performing a treatment, it is usually necessary to handle the objects to take care of them. This allow us to better understand the materiality of the object.

 

What is your favorite item that has come through your office?

I was very lucky when I first arrived because the “First Photograph” was coming back from an exhibition in Germany. The case needed some maintenance after the exhibition, so it was brought to us at the Photograph Conservation Lab, and I had the chance to view the photograph outside of its case and look at it closely to check its condition. It was amazing.

 

What was your most challenging project?

In Mexico City, I worked on a huge collage with photographs from the end of the nineteenth century. It was a commemoration of Mexico’s independence, with portraits of independence heroes as well as politicians and diplomats of the time. It measures approximately 8 x 10 feet and has more than 700 photographs. It had several structural problems that needed attention and became very complicated due to the size and the mixture of materials in the collage, and it was a lot of work to treat each photograph, one by one. Here at the Ransom Center, I worked on very tightly rolled panoramas that needed to be flattened for the World War I exhibition. The work was delicate and complicated, especially because the paper was brittle and had some tears that needed mending.

 

What is the most useful tool in your profession?

For everyday use, the microscope and the spatula are the most helpful tools for identification and treatment of photographs. Equipment used to perform scientific analysis is also very useful and helps us to better understand the chemical composition of the objects and works of art we work with. It is very important for us to first identify the photographic technique of every print or negative that comes to the lab before performing any treatment, as this determines how fragile a photograph might be. For example, some photographs are more sensitive to light, while others are more sensitive to handling. Identifying photographic techniques also allows us to choose appropriate conservation treatments.

 

Does your Spanish proficiency aid you in your work?

Sometimes, especially because of Texas’s strong connection with Latin American culture. Many archives are from native Spanish speakers, and others have Spanish inscriptions. My language skills help me understand some details about the objects, and are sometimes helpful when interacting with patrons interested in the Ransom Center’s collections.

 

What drew you to photo conservation?

My father, who was a photographer and filmmaker, first influenced me. I used to see him filming and taking pictures, and then I played with his cameras. When I started in conservation, I liked working with paper, so my first job was as a paper conservator in an archive where photographs started to be more and more common. I was asked to survey a new collection that had an important number of photographic materials, and at that moment I realized I did not really know how to talk about the materiality of photographs or their decay with time. I realized that I didn’t know much, but I wanted to. That curiosity and my father’s influence were what helped me decide to work in this field.

 

You worked in the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. What did you like most about working there?

It was great to learn about her as an artist, but also as a person by seeing her pictures. Her father was a renowned photographer, so there is a large collection of family photographs, together with images of her in bed after one of several operations, with an apparatus installed in the bed that held a canvas and allowed her to paint while recovering. Others show the work in progress of some of her most important paintings. There are also photographs with or from other artists and friends of Frida such as Nickolas Muray and Diego Rivera. These pictures show an intimate part of her life that nobody had seen before and have an incredible value for researchers and scholars.

 

When Frida died, Diego locked up her personal effects and other belongings, including unfinished paintings, in bathrooms at the Blue House that had been converted into storerooms. Diego entrusted the archive to his friend Dolores Olmedo, with the instruction to keep it locked until 15 years after his death, but Dolores decided to keep it locked until after her own death. So 50 years passed before the storage rooms were opened and the museum was able to process Frida’s personal archive and establish conservation needs and exhibitions. I feel very fortunate to have contributed to the preservation of her archive.

 

There’s a Frida Kahlo portrait at the Ransom Center.

It’s remarkable that we have it here. The painting is one of her most important pieces. Actually, I had the chance to courier it back to the Ransom Center. It was featured in an exhibition that highlighted surreal artists, and I had the chance to return it to the museum when the exhibition ended. I think it’s another favorite from the collections for me.

 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to read and dance a lot, go to the gym and exercise, go out with friends, and go to the movies.

 

What type of dancing do you do?

Everything! If it is informal, I like to salsa and merengue or dance to other Latin music, but I used to do contemporary dance and ballet.

 

What was the last movie you saw?

I saw Wish I Was Here with Zach Braff.

 

What is your favorite place in Austin to spend your day off?

I like so many places in Austin: around the lake, downtown. Areas surroundings Austin, like Enchanted Rock, are beautiful, and Barton Springs, of course, in the summer.

 

Do you have a favorite contemporary photographer or a favorite gallery in Austin?

I like very much the work of the photographer Alec Soth. The Ransom Center organized a pop-up show recently; I especially like his “Paris/Minesota” project. On the subject of galleries, I like The Contemporary Austin.

 

 

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Video preview: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

By Alicia Dietrich

Starting today, the Ransom Center celebrates 150 years of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with an exhibition for the curious and curiouser of all ages. Learn about Lewis Carroll and the real Alice who inspired his story. See one of the few surviving copies of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Discover the rich array of personal and literary references that Carroll incorporated throughout Alice. Explore the surprising transformations of Alice and her story as they have traveled through time and across continents. Follow the White Rabbit’s path through the exhibition, have a tea party, or watch a 1933 paper filmstrip that has been carefully treated by Ransom Center conservators. The Center’s vast collections offer a new look at a story that has delighted generations and inspired artists from Salvador Dalí to Walt Disney.

 

The exhibition can be seen in the Ransom Center galleries, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. Daily public tours are offered at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

 

The exhibition runs through July 6.

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Slideshow: See the exhibition “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” come to life during installation

By Alicia Dietrich

Starting tomorrow, the Ransom Center celebrates 150 years of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with an exhibition for the curious and curiouser of all ages. Below, get a preview of the galleries with a slideshow of images from the installation process over the past few weeks.

 

The exhibition can be seen in the Ransom Center galleries, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. Daily public tours are offered at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

 

The exhibition runs through July 6.

 

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