Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Reflections on the First Iowa Humanities Festival

By Jennifer Shook

On Saturday, March 9, 2013, the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies co-hosted the inaugural Iowa Humanities Festival (IHF) with Salisbury House and Gardens in Des Moines.  I was one of more than 150 Iowans in attendance. Participants included National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach, Iowa Representative Helen Miller of Fort Dodge, UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Chaden Djalali, and UI Assistant VP for Research Ann Ricketts. The Festival was hosted by the Salisbury House Foundation, curated by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, and supported by Humanities Iowa.

Having spent many years in and around the Chicago Humanities Festival, I love the idea of such events resonating in cities and states around the country. I came to graduate studies not to escape the world but to deepen the connections between my study and my life. I left the IHF with a shifted perspective: the very quirks that make us different are what make us sympathetic to one another. 

Theme of Collecting Highlights Individual Obsessions

The festival’s theme, “Collectors, Collections, and Collecting,” took us through very specific archives and individual obsessions. Throughout the day we laughed and even gasped at collectors’ choices, yet the underlying stories reflected collectors’ very real loves, fears, and aspirations—their humanity.

The opening panel kicked off the festival’s theme with tales of the Salisbury House’s journey from being the home of private collectors Carl and Edith Weeks, to a Drake University resource, to Iowa State Education Association offices, to its current iteration as a foundation and museum. Built in the 1920s from materials “recycled” from homes in England and across Iowa (even down to broken tiles), Salisbury now offers visitors a glimpse into what it looked like when the Weeks called it home.

Contextualizing Collections

As Gregory Prickman, UI Director of Special Collections and University Archives, pointed out, it is unusual to see objects in their original context in a private collection.  He commented that the “knowledge and drives” that led the Weeks to solicit stones from around the world for the house’s walls, or to purchase Stella, Genth, and Van Dyck paintings would be the same in their undisplayed collections. (He also noted that some collections—like Carl Week’s erotica, now housed in the University of Iowa’s Special Collections—have been sold or given to other institutions.)  Knowing about the larger context of the collections, we can better understand the habits of readers, especially those who owned a spectacular library like the one at the Salisbury House, and other communities of collectors. 

Salisbury Executive Director J. Eric Smith says the staff has learned over time “how to tell the story of the house,” but he also gave examples of how the house tells its own story. Paintings in the entryway, for example, highlight the Weeks’ interests the moment a guest steps in the door.  The stairway where we left our coats and umbrellas the day of IHF is guarded by a suit of armor. As the Weeks family grew and as their financial situations changed during the Depression, their collecting changed too, moving toward smaller objects like books.

Lost Gems and National Treasures

Christopher R. Rossi, Director of Humanities Iowa, encouraged IHF attendees to think about how our own collecting and collections could interact with the resources of Iowa institutions. He said it is important in his job to “keep an open eye toward interesting possibilities that may come through your door.” After all, “national treasure” David Plowden’s photos of Iowa farm communities had been in crates at the Salisbury House for years before they were made accessible through a current exhibition supported by Humanities Iowa and the UI Digital Studio for Public Humanities. In another case, a man recently showed up to Rossi’s office with some “stuff” from his shed near Washington, IA, that turned out to be a “collection of some of the earliest films ever made.” Some of his illustrated song slides and magic lantern pieces had been copied by the Library of Congress but then went back to the shed. 

Another important aspect of the Salisbury House’s holdings is Native American art, which the Weeks collected at a time when it was not considered art by most museums. During the first breakout session, UI history professor Glenn Penny discussed the novel-fueled German obsession with Native American culture, the subject of his book Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800 (UNC Press 2013), while in the “Historic Garage,” Wallace Tomasini of the School of Art and Art History at UI discussed early modern art collections in Iowa. 

Scurrying from session to session with camera in hand, I arrived downstairs in the “Indian Room” in time to hear a lively discussion following Grinnell College English professor James Lee’s talk on “Big Data” and Renaissance commonplace books.  Is there a contemporary equivalent for the common-placing of information?  How does the public nature of social media affect our private arrangement of information?  How much do we and can we control the arrangement or “curation” of our information? And the big question for the teachers in the room:  how could our relationship to information encourage self-reflection in the way that commonplace books did?  Hamlet, Lee noted, resisted having his data mined by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

“Calculus and physics cannot be separated from history and ethics.” 

By the time NEH Chairman and Iowa native Jim Leach arrived for his keynote, I had heard more than one audience member wondering whether he would talk more about sequestration than collections. Instead, Chairman Leach gave us a stirring defense of humanities education.  Humanities and arts strengthen the “imagination” as well as analysis, he said, and we need to study history and comparative religion to understand “our own era . . .  the place of our own values” and the world.  “In a global world how can we compete if we don't understand the people we're dealing with? . . . We are stewards of national power,” Leach insisted, and “calculus and physics cannot be separated from history and ethics.”  What is the right language, he asked, to make this case to those who dismiss the importance of the humanities? 

Later sessions offered a variety of potential approaches to collecting.  For Kim Marra, UI professor of theatre arts, her own mother’s collection of loving tributes to her horse led Marra to study the relationship of post-Civil War female equestrianism and early feminism. Jim Elmborg, UI professor of library and information science, reflected on the process of organizing the far-flung “little magazine” movement into a digital database available to scholars and other readers. Blaine Greteman, UI English professor, asked what unique education Iowa can offer in the new world of MOOCs?  His answer:  “If the “nature of humanities sends us into the archives,” we can make unexpected discoveries, like a Shakespeare “who has put down roots in the Iowa soil.”  Seeing how an author has been published, circulated, and collected locally leads to “what it means to be Iowan, to be human.” He finds Shakespeare in Iowa libraries, early newspapers, and in Marion, Iowa’s Shakespeare Club, founded in the 1890s and still alive today. (This summer his Shakespeare in Iowa class will include a trip to the Salisbury House.)

Inventing Poetry and Christmas Stories

Eric Gidal, UI professor of English, also spoke of the relationship of humans and books—in his case, recalling the famous “fake” Poems of Ossian, which 18th-century author James Macpherson pretended was an ancient Scottish text. After industrialization, readers looked to literature for evidence of the land in the past; when the maps didn’t match, they assumed change, rather than realizing Macpherson had invented it. Gidal referred to the process as "paleoenvironmental reconstruction.”  Meanwhile, Melisa Klimaszewski, Drake University professor of English, recalled Charles Dickens’ invention of Christmas stories, including several which she has edited and re-published. Robert Bork, UI professor of art and art history, discussed the medieval architecture, noting the link between past taste in building and the façade of the Salisbury. Matt Brown, Director of the UI’s Center for the Book and professor of English offered witty comparisons between the technologies and arts of the book and contemporary digital media. 

UI College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Joe Kearney hosted the final plenary. Three Iowa art museum directors closed out the day:  Lesley Wright, director of Grinnell’s Faulconer Gallery; Jeff Fleming, Director of the Des Moines Art Center; and Sean O’Harrow, Director of the UI Museum of Art reminded the audience of the riches that fill art museums across the state.

 One of the highlights of the day for me was a tour of the Salisbury House’s library with the Foundation’s Executive Director, J. Eric Smith. There’s a bit of something for everyone there:  galley proofs with editing notes in James Joyce’s hand; Main Street illustrated and signed by Grant Wood; a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible; shelves of early U.S. travel accounts; and an edition of Chaucer designed and printed by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press.

The final word from the library turns out to be the final word from the day: this was only a start, and there’s so much more to be explored.  What should the theme for the next Iowa Humanities Festival be? 


Jennifer Shook is a PhD candidate in English and Graduate Certificate student in the Center for the Book, as well as UI’s PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Engagement) Fellow with Imagining America, an instructor and Program Associate in Interpretation of Literature, a 2012 Obermann Graduate Fellow, Presidential Fellow, and Twitter correspondent with Digital Studio for Public Humanities (@UIDSPH). She is a theatre director and dramaturg and was a Road Scholar for the IL Humanities Council.  Her current work combines U.S. drama, Native American studies, book history, poetry, and memorial.