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Meet the Staff: Ken Grant, Exhibition Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services

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. Ken Grant received a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Iowa and then worked as a logging geologist in the oil field for six years. In 1992 he started at the State University of New York College at Buffalo where he later received his Master of Arts in Paper Conservation. He joined the Ransom Center in 1997 and has worked as Assistant Paper Conservator and Paper Conservator, but he now serves as Exhibitions Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services.

 

The oil and museum industries are very different. What brought about your career switch?

As an undergrad I was interested in materials related to geology. I needed a job, and the oil field was booming and hiring anyone with a bachelor’s degree in geology. I gave it a try, and I enjoyed the travel, but I did not enjoy the oil field. The industrial culture was not conducive to my interest in museum work. Most of my friends from college were artists or art history majors or that sort of thing. And what they did interested me more in the long term than geology. When the bust of the mid-80s came to the oil fields I was out of a job and decided to go back to graduate school. I wanted to go back to something I really felt I enjoyed or was intrigued by.

 

How would you describe your job? How has it changed?

In a nutshell, it’s a coordinating position. I coordinate the preparation and installation of collection material for exhibitions. It involves the purchasing, resource management, and packing of materials for loan. There are loans to other institutions, loans on campus, and loans to the state government. I’m between the curatorial and the preparation functions. I don’t do conservation treatments anymore, and I haven’t for many years, and I miss it. I think that the actual hands-on interaction with the collection materials that a conservator does is very exciting. In some ways, it is a privileged kind of activity, not everybody gets to bathe rare drawings. However, moving into an administrative position allows you to see a broader range of the institutional functions. There’s a lot more conversation about development, membership, public affairs, and even development of the curatorial collecting areas.

 

What are the main benefits of loaning materials to other institutions?

I think that there’s always a benefit as an institution by making your presence known among the community of collecting institutions. You gain recognition of not only what materials you have, but also what you have in terms of staff and the capability of building the collection and using the collection. Oftentimes this awareness comes through a curator-to-curator conversation. That’s huge because it’s the network of people who you know that really creates your ability to move around within that world and make really great exhibitions happen.

 

There’s also the publicity benefit. Materials from the Harry Ransom Center are identified at the borrowing institution. That happens with very charismatic loan materials that we have, like the Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Almost exclusively, that portrait becomes the signature portrait for the exhibition that it travels to. That’s how powerful it is. When it is the signature portrait, it’s placed on banners, it gets put on posters, and buses. So you’ll see our portrait in all of these different places being used to promote the exhibition. I think loaning is recognized as a very useful tool that helps to develop the institution as a whole because it raises the profile of the institution.

 

What are your biggest apprehensions concerning the transportation process for materials?

There’s a very well-documented protocol in the museum world that is understood between different collecting institutions. In a lot of ways that is a comfort, a way of making the process more predictable and therefore less risky. My biggest concern probably would be not so much in the transportation per se. Sometimes loaning to institutions we’ve never loaned to before creates a little bit of uncertainty. We don’t know what the other institution understands or feels is important with regard to the loan process. That’s where communication is absolutely vital because we have to figure out what their expectations are explicitly with regard to the loan.

 

What do you like to do outside of work?

Outside of work I like to sleep, but apart from that I’m interested in historic photographic processes. I don’t get to practice it that much, but I am interested in learning about these processes and trying to recreate them. In my ideal world, I would have my own darkroom, and I would use historic processes because there is a richness of chemistry and aesthetic possibility within the photographic process. A lot of these older processes create tones and visual textures that you just don’t get with inkjet printers.

 

What about historic photographic processes interests you?

I think it’s the chemistry of it. The fact that so many different people along the way had to work out all of the chemical processes that go into creating a photograph is really interesting to me. There’s a huge amount of history there. Another thing I think is really interesting is the excitement that was created by the reproduction of images. It filled a need that wasn’t even known and didn’t even need to be met. Print culture followed the ability to print multiple copies of pictures and illustrated magazines. It captured people’s imagination and created this hunger in people for more and more images. They just wanted more, and that’s what digital photography has brought to the ultimate degree.

 

Related content?

A World of Interest: Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Slideshow: Installation of door from Frank Shay’s Greenwich Village bookshop

John and Ken’s Excellent Adventure

 

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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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Meet the Staff: Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation

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. Heather has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Master of Arts from Buffalo State College with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Art Conservation and Paper Conservation. She joined the Harry Ransom Center after working as a Special Collections Conservator at the Harvard College Library.

 

How did you decide to become a paper conservator?

When I was an undergraduate, I got a job at Harvard working in the conservation department doing some very entry-level work. That was where I saw the book conservators’ work and thought it was so interesting. A colleague recommended the North Bennet Street School, which has a full-time, two-year training program in which they teach the traditional methods of book binding. After I finished that program, I started as a technician in book conservation, which was when I decided to take it further and go back to graduate school to study paper conservation.

 

What is one aspect of your job that people would find surprising?

They might be surprised at the decision-making part of my job. People expect that when they come into a conservation lab, they are automatically going to see people working at a microscope, working with their hands, and working with their tools. While that certainly is a big part of what we do, conservation is about managing collections and having an understanding for the Ransom Center’s collections as a whole. We need to make sure that the hours we can sit down and work closely are allocated properly. The decisions are often made on a collection-wide level, rather than on an item level. Conservation is broader than what people expect because it is also related to preservation of collections, environmental monitoring of collections, and making sure that damage doesn’t happen in the first place.

 

Do you have a preference between hands-on work and decision-making?

I think just about any conservator would have to say that their favorite thing is to sit down at the bench with tools and actually have their hands on the items. That is the most fun part of the job, but the longer I’ve been in the field, the more I’ve learned to see the value of the administrative side. We have a large collection at the Ransom Center and we can treat only so many items in a year. So a lot of attention has to be put on which items should be treated now. I need to know what the most important item for me to be working on today is because I can work on only one item at a time.

 

Is there a specific item that you felt was particularly rewarding to work?

Items that I recently treated for the upcoming Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition were challenging—toy film strips called “Movie Jecktors.” While it is a paper object, it is a strip of paper that is wound onto a wooden dowel. It was very fragile and needed quite a bit of repair. It has been one of the most fun objects I’ve treated and so interesting because the paper was similar to tracing paper, and the transparency made it challenging to treat.

 

Do you have a preference between reading books electronically or tangibly?

I think about that question every time I read. I do both. I read a lot on my iPhone, but then I’ll read paper books as well. I can tell that the convenience of electronic readers is undeniable and that there is nothing we can do to reverse it. We need the convenience of having a library on our device. I’m at peace with this change because I recognize it as the nature of books to become this. But at the same time, people still love paper books. And just about anyone you talk to about reading will say that they love to be able to turn the pages in a book. I still think that reading a paper book is a lot more comfortable for my eyes, and I’m even more comfortable holding it. So, I use both, and I feel good about both.

 

What book is on your nightstand or iPhone right now?

Hard Choices by Hilary Clinton. I checked out the hardcopy from the library a couple of weeks ago, and I’m just starting it.

 

Do you have a favorite place in Austin?

I’m a big fan of Zilker Park because of the idea that you can see all of Austin in one place enjoying Zilker for free on a Sunday afternoon. I guess I consider Zilker to be Austin. Also, I love to go to all of the different Mexican food places. I recently moved to South Austin, and I’m learning a lot more about Austin food just by being in the thick of it.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

Take my daughter to Zilker Park. That does take up quite a bit of my free time, but I also have an interest in artists’ books, book making, and print making. I try to work on those and take printmaking and book-making classes when I can. I’m a member of the Women Printmakers of Austin. I’m also a knitter and a sewer.

 

Have you made your own book before?

Before I went to graduate school, I studied book binding at North Bennet Street School, and during that two-year period, I made historical book models all the time. The books that I am making now fit more in the category of artists’ books, which are more like artwork. Imagine a book almost like a sculpture where the book itself is a piece of artwork and might have unusual formats or something like that. I’ve been trying to combine bookbinding and printmaking into one process of book-making, though my projects have been quite simple because the printmaking is so new to me. I really enjoy it.

 

Have you brought your daughter to the Ransom Center or any of its exhibits before?

Not yet. I am bringing her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this spring.

 

Related content:

World War I Red Cross poster undergoes conservation treatment for exhibition

Conservation team brings large map to larger audiences

Read other Meet the Staff profiles

 

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Meet the Staff: Webmaster Daniel Zmud

By Sarah Strohl

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. Daniel Zmud, who joined the Ransom Center in 2001, manages everything web-related and supervises the digitization of the Center’s archival sound recordings, videotapes, and motion picture films. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Radio-Television-Film from The University of Texas at Austin in 1996 and has led the Ransom Center through two major website redesigns, the latest of which launched in 2008.

 

Can you tell us a little about what you do here at the Ransom Center?

My responsibilities have grown over time. At first I was only producing the public website and online research tools, but since then I’ve also been supervising the audiovisual digitization lab and creating interactive installations for the exhibition galleries.

 

What do you like most about working at the Ransom Center?

I like being a part of activities that shine some light on our collections. They could sit on a dark shelf forever, but it’s much more enjoyable to take them out for exhibitions or research. I was lucky enough to be around when we were scanning the Gutenberg Bible. It’s almost never out of its display case, so it was a pretty rare opportunity to have it there on the scanning station, turning every page, and getting to see it up close. We had to have an armed guard on duty…it was an incredible experience.

 

I hear you have spent some time building the web exhibition for The Making of Gone With The Wind. How has that been going?

It has been a whirlwind of activity this spring and summer. The web exhibition will include Gone With The Wind content that we’ve previously published, but we’re also integrating a fan-mail database. People can search by name or topic and read actual correspondence that was sent to David O. Selznick’s film production company before, during, and after the making of the film. You’ll be able to type in your relatives’ names to see if they sent in any comments or applied for a job.

 

Do you have a favorite item or collection here at the Ransom Center?

I haven’t seen every collection, but I always want to tell people about the Norman Dawn collection. He was a special effects inventor for film projects in the early 1900s. We have over 150 display cards from him, and each one describes a different special effect. Special effects at that time were so new—directors didn’t want to spend money on them unless they knew that they were actually going to work. He used a variety of artistic techniques like sketching, watercolor, and painting to sell the special effects to whoever was making a movie, and then he went back after the fact and inserted film stills of the finished special effect. The skill and artistry involved is incredible.

 

Can you tell us about your car restoration hobby and the cars you’ve been working on lately?

Well, I go to antique malls pretty often, and one time around three years ago I came across this stack of car-customizing magazine from the ’50s and ’60s. They really showed me the creative element in repairing and customizing old cars. I never thought it was something I would be able to do, but flipping through those magazines, I realized that older cars are actually simple machines. So, I was going through Craigslist around that time, and I came across a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair that just intrigued me. It was in rough shape, and I thought to myself, “Here’s a blank slate!” With the help of many people giving me advice and directing me to spare parts, I was able to get that car looking really nice within a year, and I ended up reluctantly selling it. What I learned was that once you finish a project, you are eager to start another one. Right now, I’m working on two Mazda Miatas.

Below, watch Zmud drive the 1965 Chevrolet Corvair that he restored.

 

Where is your favorite place to travel?

Every year since 1988 I’ve gone to Taos, New Mexico for a week or two in the summer. I like to hit the reset button there. I’m with my family, and it’s not a typical trip where every minute is scheduled. I just get to relax, take in the scenery, and escape the heat.

 

Do you happen to collect anything?

I collect snapshots. You’ll find these buckets full of snapshots in antique stores, and I like flipping through every last one of them. When one sticks with me as interesting or artistic, I decide to take it home. People can be accidentally artistic, even when they are just taking a picture of their aunt and uncle, or the picture isn’t in focus.

 

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Meet the Staff: Film Curatorial Assistant Albert A. Palacios

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Meet the Staff is an occasional series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Albert A. Palacios has been the Film Curatorial Assistant at the Ransom Center since January 2010 and is a doctoral student in Latin American history at The University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Master of Science in Information Studies and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. He was recently awarded the 2014 prize for best graduate essay for Book History. The judges noted “Not only is his research breathtaking, he offers a whole new approach to the issue of Spanish colonial censorship, and beyond that, a new perspective on the mechanics of censorship in general.”

 

Palacios has coordinated several major volunteer projects, including the digitization of the Alfred Junge collection, the preservation of the Perry Mason film, and the fan mail database in the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.

 

What does an average day for you entail?

Typically I manage eight to 15 graduate volunteers working at the film department each semester. We work on a range of projects, from creating digital collections and preserving film media to processing archives. However, this past semester we had 24 graduate and undergraduate students helping develop content for the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.

 

Tell us about your role in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind?

I was the project coordinator for the Gone With The Wind fan mail database, which shares thousands of letters that Selznick International Pictures received between 1936 and 1939. I recruited and trained graduate volunteers on preparing letters for scanning, digitization, image cropping, database records, transcription, as well as writing feature stories about the different types of letters. I also reviewed for quality and approved each entry. To date, we have records for more than 3,000 letters and transcripts for more than 6,000 pages.

 

What’s the most rewarding part about your job?

I think working with the volunteers is the most rewarding. They help us accomplish many high-quality projects, and they are always so excited and engaged. I am particularly glad to see that the myriad experiences and skills we offer can support their professional development. They help us preserve and make our collections accessible, while we help them define their career aspirations.

 

Tell us about your academic background and interests.

I started as an undergraduate at UT, pursuing a dual degree in architecture and anthropology. I knew I didn’t want to be an architect or an archaeologist when I finished in 2009, but I still wanted to explore questions of design and cultural representation. I started looking at museum exhibition design while I was studying architecture in Italy. That was when I decided to combine my architecture and archaeology/anthropology majors within the context of museums and archives at the School of Information. I graduated with my master’s degree there and jumped over to Latin American studies, where I wrote my thesis on book censorship in sixteenth-century Mexico. After receiving my master’s degree, I began in the history Ph.D. program. Ultimately, I’m working toward becoming a curator of Latin American special collections.

 

Did you travel to research your thesis?

I have gone to Mexico City, Chicago, New York, and other U.S. cities the throughout past two years to hunt down Mexican “inculabula” and manuscript sources that elucidate publishing practice in sixteenth-century Mexico. I am analyzing the censorship process, printing privilege (akin to copyright) and the social networks that intellectually and economically favored New Spain’s authors. I’m happy to say that two papers from that research are being published this year—one will be a chapter in a book and another in an academic journal.

 

What’s your favorite movie?

Spellbound! I’m a big fan of psychological thrillers. At the Ransom Center, we have original storyboards, construction drawings, and props that were created for the movie’s dream sequence.

 

Related content:

View other Gone With The Wind blog content

View other “Meet the Staff” profiles

 

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Meet the Staff: Rick Watson, Head of Reference Services for the Manuscript Collection

By Sarah Strohl

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. Rick Watson started at the Ransom Center as one of the first graduate interns in 1989 and now oversees the graduate intern program alongside his work as Head of Reference Services for the Manuscript Collection. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s in English from the University of Tulsa.

 

What does a typical day at the Ransom Center look like for you?

A typical day for me includes answering emails and phone calls about our collections, meeting with patrons in the reading room, and helping them find materials in our manuscript collections. I also direct them toward collection materials that they may not have known about. Many of our manuscript items are not cataloged to the item-level, or cataloged onsite, and therefore not online.

 

You started out at the Ransom Center as a graduate intern. Can you tell me about that experience and how your career has developed since then?

I started in 1989 as one of the first graduate interns. It was a very exciting time to be at the Ransom Center, and there were lots of new collections coming in. My career has taken a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve been able to stay at the Ransom Center since then. I worked with previous director, Thomas F. Staley, managing the Joyce Studies Annual, which is no longer in production. I started working in the performing arts collection as a research associate in 2001 or 2002, and the art collection in 2004,and that’s what led me to this position, Head of Reference Services for the manuscript collection.

 

What do you like most about working at the Ransom Center?

Well, what is there not to like? It’s just a constant discovery. There is such a wealth of material here, and I like being able to help people find things. Whether they are doing genealogical research or biographies or theoretical or critical studies—when you have over 42 million manuscripts in your collection, there is a nugget in there for everybody. I was told that I would know if I liked it from the day I stepped inside, and I have. I really appreciate being here every day.

 

Is there a favorite collection you have worked with here?

There are so many! That’s a tough question, but I’ve been drawn to a couple different collections lately. One is the Peter Matthiessen collection. I’ve been looking at the notebooks for his travel journal, The Snow Leopard, which documents a fascinating trip through the Himalayas, a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.

 

Also, the J. M. Coetzee archive has been getting a lot of use, so I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with it. The wealth of materials in that collection is just amazing, but one thing in particular I like is a list of banned books from when he was teaching in South Africa. It’s an amazing list of books. It’s not just English and American literature, but it’s literature from all over the world. I usually pull that one out for classes that visit.

 

Have you read any on that list?

Yes, I have! A few. It’s actually a really good reading list.

 

Tell us a little about managing the graduate intern program.

Typically we get around 30 to 40 applications per year to fill six positions. Each graduate intern is enrolled full time in a University of Texas at Austin’s Master’s program or a Ph.D. program, and we get people from the Information School, American Studies, English, Radio-Television-Film, Art History—really all over the place. The graduate interns amaze me because they are some of the smartest people I know. They are all really good in their own field, great learners, and super valuable to us in Research Services. They’re hilarious too—just great people to work with.

 

Have you lived anywhere else outside Texas?

Most of my family is from the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, where I was born, but my parents relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma. After living there for a while, I moved to the Austin area, and I’ve been here ever since. I do love to travel, though!

 

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Well, for the past two years, a lot of my time has been spent with my wife and my little girl who is about to be two. It has been a great adventure and a lot of fun. We like to get outdoors as much as possible, and now that she’s a little older, we’ve started to get into rock climbing again and a little bit of camping. We have a long agenda of things we want to do, but most of it includes travel and being outdoors. Introducing our daughter to the outdoors is really important to us.

 

Have you always been interested in rock climbing?

Yes, I’ve been part of the rock-climbing community since I moved to Austin. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, and I’m still on the board of the Friends of Enchanted Rock. I was a rock-climbing instructor and guide for many years and then co-owner and operator of a rock-climbing guide service for a little over 10 years. I started climbing when I lived in Oklahoma. There are rocks in the Midwest, believe it or not.

 

Have you gotten to travel anywhere interesting for your outdoor adventuring?

Most of my interesting travel involves rock climbing. I spent some intense times in Mexico, California, Colorado, and various other places. I also love spending time at Padre Island National Seashore, which is about 65 miles of undeveloped barrier island in South Texas. It’s a wonderful, wild place.

 

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Meet the Staff: French Collections Research Associate Elizabeth Garver

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of people at the Ransom Center. Elizabeth Garver has held several positions at the Ransom Center since 2000, including graduate student intern, manuscript archivist, and in 20052006, she co-curated the Technologies of Writing exhibition. Currently, she works with the Ransom Center’s extensive French and Italian collections, and she is a co-curator of the current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. She speaks four languages—English, French, Italian, and Russian—and holds a variety of degrees, including a Master’s in Library and Information Science, a Diploma of Advanced Studies from the University of Paris, a Master of Arts in Nautical Archeology, and a Bachelor of Arts in Archeology. She is also a current Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

Why do you enjoy working at the Ransom Center?

Well, this is my 14th year here, and almost every day I see something new that I’ve never seen before. I also like being able to do research, which is an opportunity you don’t get at a lot of jobs, and I like helping other people with their research and answering any questions they might have. The job is always changing and always interesting.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about curating the current World War I exhibition?

Jean Cannon and I were officially brought on board for the current exhibition about two years ago. She wrote her dissertation on the war poets, and I have an interest in the topic as a UT PhD student in Modern History, so we both had some expertise. There was a lot of reading on our own, but it was also looking into the collections in depth, and since there isn’t a single World War I collection to draw upon, it was basically like a treasure hunt. Then, when you find the treasures, there is a choice to make because the space is not infinite.

 

Is there a “one that got away” item that was cut from the current exhibition for space that you wish could have been included?

Yes, actually there are a couple, but there’s a really touching letter that holds an interest for me in the Édoard Dujardin collection. He was a French writer, and he had a mistress named Madeleine Boisguillaume who wrote him a letter toward the beginning of the war about the conditions in the West of France. All of the doctors were gone because they were at the front, and there was no one to help women to deliver babies and things like that. There were only old men left, old doctors who couldn’t travel, and no hospital in the town. Because of this, she said women and children were dying in childbirth. It’s really emotional and also gives an interesting perspective. People don’t usually think about the women’s experiences during the war.

 

What has visitor response been like for the exhibition?

I think visitor response has been very positive. It’s a response that I don’t think many exhibitions get, where people have their own stories to tell. Quite a few people have been sharing stories about their families and what their grandparents did in the war, and it’s just been wonderful.

 

I hear you speak French fluently. Do you have any chances to speak French around Austin?

Yes, we have a French lunch once a week where we speak only French, and there’s actually a large French community here at The University of Texas and around Austin. It’s pretty amazing how often I hear French, and there are a lot of opportunities to speak it. There are groups and of course the French department, and there are always French movies. Also, when I communicate with scholars, I’m able to use a lot of French. I think that’s why my Italian and Russian kind of fell by the wayside. I’m pretty devoted to this language.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I do a lot of gardening, and I love baseball. My family and I are pretty hardcore baseball fans—I grew up with it and I watched my brothers play. The season is over now, but I’ve had season tickets to the Longhorns for probably around 10 years. Otherwise, I do a lot of reading (although I feel like lately I’ve only been reading about the war for this exhibition), and I really enjoy cooking, especially French food.

 

Do you have a favorite piece or collection at the Ransom Center?

Obviously the French collections are amazing, but my favorite piece changes every once in awhile. Currently, I think my favorite item in the collections is the manuscript for The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with his annotations and drawings. We also have some of his artwork, which is all amazing.

Meet the Staff: Jean Cannon, Literary Collections Research Associate

By Sarah Strohl

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. Jean Cannon has been the literary collections research associate at the Ransom Center since March 2012. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a Master’s degree from Tulane University, and a PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Cannon is responsible for helping patrons in the reading room, answering research queries, and curating exhibitions. She spent the last two years working with colleague Elizabeth Garver to co-curate the current exhibition, The World at War: 1914–1918.

 

What’s your favorite thing about working at the Ransom Center?

I love the moment when you see a student or researcher come across an artifact that really just makes their jaw drop, the “wow” moment.

 

Can you tell me more about curating the current World at War exhibition?

We started that process about two years ago. I did my dissertation research using several World War I collections at the Ransom Center, but even having done that, I had no idea just how much was here. I had worked in the literary collections, but we also have photographs and posters and all sorts of things that made it a very exciting treasure hunt throughout the building. It was a long process of researching and amassing material from the collections, and then the painful part was choosing the items and having to cut things out because you only have so much space in the gallery. We did a lot of what I like to call “dreaming and scheming.”

 

What is it like picking and choosing items for the exhibitions?

It’s exciting and can also be kind of chaotic. I think research on that large of a scale is a process of ducking down lots of different rabbit holes every day.  Even if you try to be systematic about it, you will find yourself getting drawn to different items. For example, I went through about a month of being obsessed with carrier pigeons, and Elizabeth went through a month being obsessed with pilots.

 

Did carrier pigeons actually work?

Absolutely. On the western front, telephone lines would get blown up really easily with all the shelling on the western front, so carrier pigeons were actually more reliable. It was a strange meeting of the old world and the new, nineteenth-century and twentieth-century technologies co-existing on the battlefield.

 

If you could pick a favorite item in the Ransom Center’s collections, what would it be?

One item that really means a lot to me is Wilfred Owen’s last letter to his mother. That’s one of the most affecting of the letters that I’ve read here, and it’s in the gallery now, right in the middle of the show.

 

Can you tell me a little more about your educational background and how you ended up in your current job at the Ransom Center?

It’s a long, twisty tale. I started graduate school at Tulane in New Orleans, and the second year I was there, Hurricane Katrina hit. So I ended up evacuating and coming to UT because the university had a large enough program that they were able to absorb some of the Tulane students, for which I’m ever grateful. The wonderful thing about being here was being able to do the two-year graduate internship at the Ransom Center. I just fell in love with the place, and I continued volunteering and doing freelance research in the reading room. Then, as I was finishing my doctoral degree, the director at the time recruited me to come in and serve as literary collections research associate. So I defended my dissertation, took two weeks off to hike the Grand Canyon and then came back to start working here full time. It was a whirlwind!

 

I hear you are a talented hat maker. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Well, I’ve always loved hats and have always worn a lot of hats, even as a child. Then, when I was working in New York, I saw that there was a night class at Parson’ School of Design, so I just decided to take it! At that point I didn’t even know how to run a sewing machine, and I loved it even though I was really out of my depth. Since then, I’ve sought out classes here and there and found old millinery text books and manuals in the archives. My house is full of 50 or so hats.

 

What is a perfect Saturday for you?

I would probably go for a run on the Greenbelt, maybe go for a swim, read a good book on the porch (for which it has to be sunny, but not 100 degrees), work on a hat, and cook a nice dinner and have people over! Possibly a good film also, especially if it’s hot outside and I can go to the Paramount Summer Classics series.

 

What book would you consider a “must read” this summer?

I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It will take you awhile, but it’s really worth it. She’s a big believer that a book can be escapist but also very smart, and I really love that combination.

 

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