Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Layout Room

At some point soon I’ll write a nuanced description of the Sound in Early America exhibit that my grad students are curating. The team includes the two first year grad students Amy Coddington and Gretchen Michelson.  We also have Courtney Kleftis, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale and Winston Barham helping out.  Winston is the resident expert on old books.  My official description will explain the ways in which we have tried to remind everyone that Early America was a noisy place and that we want to animate the archive by turning its usually silent stacks into sonorous echoes of the past.  After all it’s only we moderns who think of Reading as a solitary and silent practice.  For now I’ll just say that I hope the chaos of today will be delightfully invisible to the millions of visitors who will troop into the UVa Special Collections Library when our exhibit opens.

Yesterday’s class project was layout.  That means apparently that you turn layout the goods on a mock display to make sure they all fit. It gets pretty punchy when you’re in a windowless room with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of precious documents including a civil war era valentine, some printing tools that look like toy soldier weapons, and a picture of the lovely Jenny Lindt. Most rare books rooms only let you look at a few things at once, and they have very strict rules about not talking, not sharing, etc.  We had a good 36 items floating around.  Old paper gets dusty fast and we learned that all of us scratch our throats in unladylike ways that gross out our boyfriends/husbands.  And yes, other than Winston who is holding down the man fort, we are all women—a formidable bunch of women I might add. The  whole process works like corralling kids. I think I said “use your inside voice” at least five times.  (the room is not soundproof and other people were actually doing SCHOLARSHIP)  I’m also pretty sure there was throwing. I’m not mentioning names, but those cute little bean bag things that hold pages open definitely flew.

The first of six cases took us a good forty minutes to deal with, which I’m pretty sure left the library wishing they’d never asked us to do this.  Petrina and Anne (the excellent librarians who have been working with us) have been remarkably patient and helpful. I, for example, have not had time to get my e-services password to work, so any time I need a book I go old fashioned and write it on a paper slip. I feel totally 1990’s.  In terms of the Music Department crew, I am thankful that Amy took over and acted as drill sergeant and book gatherer. I think she was really hungry and thought if we got it done she could get food faster…  But it worked. I realized about ten minutes into the process that I’m a terrible person for this sort of thing; archival exhibits are completely inaccessible to the visually impaired since they prevent my usual stick-my-nose-quite-literally-in-the-book pose.  In addition, my lack of fine motor skills makes writing labels and quickly moving around fragile things treacherous.  Before Amy took over I heard phrases like “uh oh, I think we just made something up.” And, again I’m not naming names, but someone put a song from 1824 in the civil war section. We plan to upset (we hope) some visitors by deliberately placing the Civil War in the Patriotism section and presenting some of the more abhorrent Confederate materials as examples of what happens when Patriotism goes wrong.

My low point during the initial warm up was picking up Thomas Jefferson’s edition of Der Freishutz and watching the title page fly off—yes, fly off.  I’ve been drawn to this particular edition for a few years.  This piano reduction has a beautiful cover illustration.  It’s a really simple reduction; much easier to play than most.  And it doesn’t really fit in with anything else in TJ’s collection.   Jews believe that if you drop a Torah you have to fast for forty days, and I’m sure the retributions for dropping anything Mr. Jefferson put his hands on are harsher around here. I promise that part of my Decentering of TJ project does not involve consciously dropping his stuff.  (though in my opinion we could all stand to rough up a little more of his stuff…)

It got pretty brutal down there as we had to make choices about which documents would actually get to spend some time in the display cases instead of languishing in the bowels of the library. The most crushing omission was probably the tiny books.  We all fell in love with these little miniature books that measure about three inches.  You could easily fit three of them in your jeans pocket.  After oohing and awwwing every time, we were finally informed by the librarians that “they are cute but...”  As in, “Get over it ladies.  These things are too small even for people who can see.”  We also ran into space problems and had to evict Jenny Lind. The sweetish nightingale became famous in the States after an extremely successful concert tour organized by PT Barnum in 1850.  It felt a little like a cross between a sorority and a job search as we had to eliminate her because she simply did not meet our needs and her delightful little program was falling apart and decrepit.  With her, unfortunately, went Willa Cather’s Song of The Lark.  As someone said “we gave her the boot even if she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize or something like that.”  We had to move all kinds of things around because the precious wax cylinder is considered a security risk. 

We’ve divided the exhibit into six major categories.  I’m not going to write them here because I want EVERYONE TO COME SEE IT, and I know that you are all dying to know exactly how we’ve organized the goods.  We’ve been most fascinated by, and had the most trouble with, the sections of the exhibit that deal with musical representations of Native Americans and African Americans. We first categorized this as “stuff white people like to transcribe”.  That seemed not quite right, so we moved onto a Guyatri Spivak style “can the subaltern sing?”  We settled on musical ethnographies. Wordplay aside, writing about Race is always hard, and it’s particularly vexed at UVa, which has its own ugly history of racism; a history that is with us today in countless ways.  That means that, in addition to Frederick Douglas’s speeches, we have a Steven Foster minstrel song.  Frederick Douglas was disgusted by the idea that the songs of enslaved people reflected their happiness and insisted that they told a “tale of woe in tones loud, long and deep.” And minstrel songs stand as an egregious example of a white celebration and appropriation of the Black Culture it attempts to oppress. And we also have the earliest printed collection of music of the enslaved people published in 1867.  We also have Death Song of the Cherokee Indians” from 1786 that claims to be “An original air, brought from America by a Gentleman long conversant [sic] with the Indian Tribes, and particularly with the Nation of the Cherokees.”  The gentlemen that brought back those original airs also participated in a process of genocide.  These are very tricky issues for graduate students to navigate in two sentences of text.

I did notice that we’ve all sort of fallen in love with old books.  I’ve always been disparaging of the kind of opera or literature scholarship that acts like the author is about to have lunch with the character.  But I’d say we’ve all crossed a line with these books.  We worried about finding them a home, giving them room to breathe, finding them a safe space to be, etc…  I’m not sure what the students actually think about the process.  When I promised them all A’s in the class they seemed to relax a bit... But I am pretty sure that I’m not the only one in  that room who gets a kind of visceral pleasure out of touching old books.

No comments:

Post a Comment