This holiday season, we have bundled our favorite exhibition publications together. Now you can show off your knowledge of diverse topics from industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes and the First World War to photographers Arnold Newman and Fritz Henle. Read more
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 2005–2006, 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 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.
The Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918marks the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. “The war to end all wars,” as it was optimistically dubbed, was one of the deadliest conflicts in history and paved the way for cultural and political change worldwide. This war, entrenched with heartbreak, heroes, villains, and camaraderie, inspired many stories both historical and fictional—some of which were captured for the silver screen.
Some of these films, including Wings (1927), The Big Parade (1925), and Sergeant York (1941), are highlighted in the current exhibition and the ongoing World War I Film Series, co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society and the Paramount Theatre.
Wings, released by Paramount Pictures in 1927, was filmed on location in San Antonio and was an homage to pilots of the First World War. The film tells the tale of two young fighter pilots who fall in love with the same woman. Hundreds of extras and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming, including pilots and planes of the United States Air Corps. It was directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, who had been both an ambulance driver and pilot during the war.
Starlet Clara Bow played Mary Preston, an irresistible Red Cross ambulance driver. Though Bow, known largely for her flapper dresses and pearls, despised the army uniforms required for her role, the film was one of her most successful. Wings costume designer Edith Head commented: “It’s pretty hard to look sexy in a U.S. Army uniform, but Clara managed.”
Wings went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. A film still from Wings is on view in the galleries.
King Vidor’s poignant and humanizing silent film The Big Parade follows the spoiled, lazy son of a wealthy family as he joins the army and proceeds to make a few friends and fall in love amid the hardships of war.
The Big Parade portrayed the human costs of war and was influential in the creation of later war movies. Widely popular, the film earned MGM studios an almost instant profit of $3.4 million upon reception. Watch a screening of The Big Parade at the Paramount Theatre tomorrow at 7 p.m. as part of the World War I Film Series.
Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper, Sergeant York is the true story of one of World War I’s most decorated soldiers, Alvin York. York was a hillbilly sharpshooter who, despite his misgivings and claims of being a pacifist, was drafted into the war and became a hero. Sergeant York was the top grossing film in 1941, and Cooper won the Academy Award for best actor.
Two new interactive activities—an audio tour and a passport project—are now available for visitors to the exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918.
Daniel Carter, a PhD student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin who researches how people interact with cultural objects, facilitated the pilot project.
“I spent some time in the gallery watching people move through TheWorld at War exhibition,” said Carter. “I became interested in thinking about other kinds of interactions that might happen in that space.”
Carter reached out to designer Brent Dixon and local theater group Paper Chairs to ask them to produce something for visitors in the gallery. In response, Dixon created the passport project, and Paper Chairs recorded an audio tour for the exhibition.
Visitors can receive a passport booklet with a map to guide them through the exhibition and to illustrate the larger story of how each country was affected by the war. Within each country’s section of the exhibition, visitors will find a reproduction of a major artifact—for example, French poet and soldier Roger Allard’s description of conditions at the frontline. The passport project, reminiscent of a scavenger hunt, provides visitors context with another way of engaging with the exhibition.
“Our hope is for people to approach each section of the exhibition with a slightly richer context,” said Dixon.
The Paper Chairs audio tour brings textual material in the exhibition to life so that it can be experienced on a personal level. Kelli Bland of Paper Chairs chose 15 letters and poems in the exhibition and recruited talent from her theater community to read them aloud. Rather than mimicking the dialects and accents of the writers, the actors instead aimed to capture the emotion of the letters and poems and to give a human voice to the documents so that visitors could connect with the material.
“We, as a society, are separated from the experience of war,” Bland said. “I am hoping that our little guide will support the message I received from the exhibition: war is consuming, thrilling, and terrible. It changes the world and all of the people in it.”
The current exhibition, including Dixon’s passport project and the Paper Chairs audio tour, is on view through August 3. The audio guide and passport are available at the visitor desk during regular gallery hours.
The Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 marks the centenary of the start of World War I. Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Bosnian-Serb student, open conflict began the following month when Austria-Hungary invaded the Kingdom of Serbia in retaliation. Within weeks, nearly all of the nation-states of Europe were drawn into a war that lasted four long years and killed ten million servicemen.
Tomorrow, June 28, marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination that sparked outbreak of the First World War.
Enter to win a signed copy of Geoff Dyer’s book The Missing of the Somme, a book that is part travelogue and part meditation on the remembrance of the First World War. To enter, tweet a link to this blog post with the tag @ransomcenter.
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All tweets and emails must be sent by Monday, July 1, at midnight CST. A winner will be drawn and notified on Tuesday.
A recent Longhorn Network video featured the Ransom Center’s exhibition The World At War: 1914–1918 as part of The Alcalde’s magazine program. The video includes interviews with exhibition co-curators Jean Cannon and Elizabeth Garver, as well as Professor Steven Isenberg, who taught a class on World War I this spring at The University of Texas at Austin.
The three discuss how the Great War shaped modern politics and conflict, paved the way for World War II, introduced new technologies, and changed attitudes about the nature of war. The exhibit, which runs through August 3, draws on the Ransom Center’s extensive collections to illuminate the experience of the war from the point of view of its participants and observers, preserved through letters, drafts, and diaries; memoirs and novels; and photographs and propaganda posters, prints, and more.