From Ethnography to Feathers, Investigating Collections at the Library

This is another guest post by Giselle Aviles, the 2019 Archaeological Research Associate in the Geography and Map Division. It was first published on the Library’s Worlds Revealed by John Hessler. We’re republishing a slightly edited version here. As John noted in his original post: “She is delving into the treasures of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the History and Archaeology of the Early Americas, undertaking an ethnographic analysis of Andean textiles and mesoamerican ceramics, tracing and unfolding their stories. She is a former Research Fellow of the Quai Branly Museum-Martine Aublet Foundation in Paris, and has conducted fieldwork in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Algeria, France, and Spain. She has come to the Library through the Hispanic National Internship Program sponsored by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).”
How can I tell stories about ancient artifacts when their parts are scattered in different places in a library? I take the example of ethnographers: When they are doing fieldwork to decipher a given society, they study the general culture along with specific items, such as photographs, personal letters, official documents and historical archives. They’re always looking for an “Aha!” moment that offers a bit of unique insight.

Giselle Aviles examining a miniature feather tunic from the Ica Valley of Peru, 12-13th century CE in the Preservation Research and Testing Division of the Library. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection, Library of Congress.

When I received the message that I was going to collaborate with John Hessler, the curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas — which includes Pre-Colombian Peruvian textiles and Mayan ceramics — I couldn’t believe it. No longer would I be appreciating early American artifacts through the exhibit cases of a museum. I would be close to them, studying them, feeling them.

Photograph in UV light of the Ica Feather Tunic. Analysis by Tana Villafana, Senior Scientist in the Preservation Research Division, and Giselle Aviles, Archaeological Research Associate

It’s been thrilling. The Kislak collection encompasses, for example, a diversity of chuspas, a Quechua word for a hand-woven pouch used to carry coca leaves. When looking for the first time at the Peruvian textiles, donated by William and Inger Ginsberg, I found myself imagining the stories behind them. What conversations could have taken place? What social relationships would have developed? Did many families weave? Why did they chose those specific colors and patterns? Did a preferred location to weave exist, such as at home or a workshop? What would the weaver’s space be like while the textile was being thought through and produced?

My methodology over the next few months will be to grasp the symbols, colors, and feelings of objects in the Kislak Collection and relate them to other items in the library, such as rare books, manuscripts and maps. Working with archaeological artifacts in an ethnographic way is exciting, and there is not a single day when I don’t learn something new. I have the objects in front of me. I sit in the cold vault where the artifacts are temperature protected and, alone, I talk with them. How can an ancient life be thought about through a specific artifact? These are questions that I hope to ponder during my research time at the Library and discuss in my Gallery Talks in the Exploring the Early Americas Exhibit.

Maya Ceramic Vase with Animal Way Dancers. One of the many ceramic pieces being investigated by Giselle Aviles. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Branch Rickey Crowdsourcing Project: It’s Outta Here!

This is a guest post from Lauren Algee, LC Labs Senior Innovation Specialist.  Just four months after the Library partnered with the public to transcribe the papers of baseball icon Branch Rickey, volunteers have transcribed all 1,926 pages of Rickey’s scouting reports, making them available for digital research just in time for Major League Baseball’s […]

Long-lost Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz Letters Now at the Library

A never-seen-before collection of letters from Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz offers new insight into the couple’s art, marriage and ambitions during an eighteen-year span in which they were primary shapers of American Modernism. The letters were sent, independently of one another, to their mutual friend, filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz, with whom O’Keeffe seemed especially close. The Library acquired them from a private collection. This is the first time they have been available to the public.

Inquiring Minds: Teaching American Culture Through Movies

For the past three decades or so, Thomas Doherty has taught and written about films, television and Hollywood — a lot. An American studies professor at Brandeis University with a special interest in classical Hollywood, he has written seven books touching on topics including teen movies, censorship, Hitler and McCarthyism. His latest book, “Show Trial: […]

Inquiring Minds: Researching Women’s History at the Library

For years now, Saundra Rose Maley has encouraged her English composition students at Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Maryland, to think of themselves as detectives. The setting for their investigations: the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Their task: to scout out primary sources for novel or surprising details about historical figures and write […]

New Online: Occupational Culture of Home Health-Care Workers

This post by Stephanie Hall of the American Folklife Center was first published on the center’s blog, “Folklife Today.” An important new oral history collection documenting the lives and careers of home health-care workers in Oregon is now available on the Library of Congress’ website. The American Folklife Center recently announced the release of “Taking […]

Inquiring Minds: Celebrating Black Musical Theater

For going on a decade now, theater historian Ben West has been making regular trips from his home in New York City to the Library of Congress. His mission? To cull through unpublished manuscripts, personal papers of Broadway authors, copyright drama submissions and more to tell the story of the American musical. Last September, West’s […]

Omar Ibn Said: Conserving a One-of-a-Kind Manuscript

This is a guest post by Sylvia Albro, a senior paper conservator in the Conservation Division. Earlier this month, the Library released online the Omar Ibn Said Collection, including Ibn Said’s autobiography, the only known extant autobiography written in Arabic by an enslaved person in the United States. A wealthy and educated man, Ibn Said […]

Inquiring Minds: Opening a Treasure Chest of Unfinished Stories

In fall 2005, Joe Manning agreed to help his friend, author Elizabeth Winthrop, with a task that had become something of an obsession for her: discovering the story of a little girl staring intently out of a 1910 picture taken at a Vermont cotton mill. Winthrop had encountered the image in an exhibition of child-labor […]

Omar Ibn Said: Transcribing Documents from the Unique Collection

This is a guest post by Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown University and an expert on the history of slavery and abolition in the Atlantic world. Last fall, he was a distinguished visiting scholar at the Library’s John W. Kluge Center. Here Rothman writes about the Omar Ibn Said Collection, which the […]