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.

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

Inquiring Minds: Author Takes a Deep Dive into the Library

Barb Rosenstock writes children’s books about people who have changed history — Ben Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Joe DiMaggio and racing legend Louise Smith among them. “The Noisy Paint Box,” her story about the artist Kandinsky, was a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book. In 2013, she published “Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library” about Jefferson’s massive book collection, […]

Inquiring Minds: Inspiring Students Through Primary Sources

For more than 20 years now, Saundra Rose Maley has required her English composition students — first from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and now from nearby Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Maryland — to make a short trek to the Library of Congress. There, in the Manuscript Division, the students research primary sources, […]

Inquiring Minds: Finding Jonathan Larson’s Lost Works in Tapes and Boxes

The following is a guest post by theater historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the creative and programming director at Feinstein’s/54 Below, a Broadway supper club in New York City. From October 9 to 14, the club will present “The Jonathan Larson Project,” a concert of previously unheard work by the late composer and playwright. Tepper, who […]

This Day in History: Deadliest Hurricane Ever Strikes Galveston

A little more than a year ago, Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast as a category 4 storm, bringing damaging rain and flooding. Less than a month later, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with heavy downpours and sustained winds of 155 miles an hour – only two miles an hour shy of a category 5 […]