The Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas contains important archaeological artifacts, rare books, manuscripts, maps, and graphic works of art, which survey the earliest history of the lands that would become known as the Americas. In 2004 Jay I. Kislak, a businessman, philanthropist, military aviator, and collector, donated his collection to the Library of Congress. The collection is now described comprehensively in a new, online finding aid. In addition, a new digital collection, features digital representations of selected items, including over 300 archaeological artifacts. These resources will improve the public’s ability to discover and learn more about this significant historical collection.
The Kislak collection includes many three-dimensional objects of pre-Columbian date, documenting the indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Pre-Columbian artifacts from more than twenty indigenous cultures, including the Nahua, the Nuudzahui, the lowland and highland Maya, the Taino, the Olmec, the Wari, the Inca, and many others, give a overview of the arts of indigenous cultures in the period before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Artifacts like the Tortuguero Box and the dynastic codex-style vase with sixty hieroglyphs, contain important texts, written with Mayan hieroglyphs, the only complete writing system originating in the Americas.
The Kislak manuscript and rare book collection contains almost one thousand historically significant texts. These texts in the hands of Philip II, King of Spain, the conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, Bartolomé de Las Casas and others, give unique insights into the earliest interactions between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Europeans during the early years of the sixteenth century.
These manuscripts, along with rare books, maps and graphic materials, such as the earliest dictionary of the indigenous language of Nahuatl, the Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana (1571) by Alonso de Molina, and the Historia de Nueva-Espana, printed in Mexico City in 1770, by Francisco Antonio Lorenzana y Butron, as well as early printed archaeological tracts like the Descripcion Historica y Cronologica de las Dos Piedras (1792) by Antonio de Léon y Gama, make the Kislak Collection one of the most comprehensive collections of historical materials relating to the period immediately after the arrival in the Americas of Europeans found in private hands at the time of its donation to the Library of Congress.
Graphic materials contained in the collection include three important watercolor paintings of scenes from the Popol Vuh, a text recounting the Maya creation by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a series of eight large paintings of the conquest and the defeat of Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor of Mexico, by an unknown artist, and early photography of archaeological sites by Désiré Charnay. Important maps like those of Baptista Boazio illustrating the voyages of Sir Francis Drake and the Carta marina navigatoria Portugallen navigations atque tocius cogniti orbis terre marisque, 1516, by the mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller, are significant historical artifacts that round out the collection’s holdings.
Jay I. Kislak (1922–2018) was one of the truly great collectors of early American history and archaeology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His trail through the world of Mesoamerican art, archaeology, and history led him to travel all over Central and South America and was a path that crossed many borders and boundaries—of geography, of language, and of time. At Jay’s ninety-fifth birthday party, which I attended on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid, and on which he had served as an aviator in the Second World War, he spoke to the assembled group of family and friends about his deep love for the Library of Congress and how he knew that the collection had found its ideal setting. He once wrote about how happy he was that his passion would now be in a place where scholars and the general public could come see and learn from the stories it had to tell. As he hoped, through his donation to the Library, his passion for collecting and the objects that held a lifetime of fascination for him will live on where they can be a source of knowledge and inspiration for everyone.