Olmec figurine, Mexico. 2,600-3,100 years old. Kislak Collection. Photo: Lee Ewing.
This is a guest blog by Tamia Williams, a junior at Washington College. She was an intern in the Library’s publishing office this summer.
Everything has a history, a story that it can tell across the ages, if one knows how to listen for it. John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas, spends his days evaluating the history behind artifacts that are hundreds, if not more than a thousand, years old. He searches to discover their origins, weaving together each piece of information to create full stories.
His new book, “Collecting for a New World: Treasures of the Early Americas,” published by the Library in association with D Giles Limited, is out this week. Filled with short essays and brilliant color photographs, it invites readers to become explorers, time-travelers and investigators—to discover what’s in the blank space between an artifact’s origin and its arrival at the Library.
I went on my own trip to find the motivation behind “Collecting.” I headed to the basement of the Madison Building, past the giant globe outside the Geography and Map Division reading room and into the vaults of the collection. This is Hessler’s turf, home to the Kislak Collection, with over 4,000 books, manuscripts and materials that span early history from pre-Columbian times to the 18th century in vaults or on shelves. Hessler has written and edited several books on maps and the history of the Americas – “The Naming of America,” “A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox,” “Map: Exploring the World” – and his enthusiasm is infectious. We talked in a plain conference room, sitting at a table that held a strikingly large Mayan incense burner, adorned with masks and mica inlays. It was made between 500 and 700 years ago, and seemed to bring the history of the era to life.
Sculpture of Xipe Totec priest wearing flayed human skin. Central Mexican highlands, circa 1450. Kislak Collection. Photo: Lee Ewing.
“Jay Kislak was one of the premiere collectors of materials related to the early Americas,” Hessler is saying. His job, as curator, is to “throw the doors open and say, ‘Listen, this is an amazing collection. There are these issues with the collection, but scholars should come. People should come. We can learn a lot about the history of the Americas from these objects and manuscripts.’”
Hessler writes as the tour guide through the collection. Here, Mayan jade carvings from 600 to 900 A.D., made in modern-day Guatemala; there, Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, showing, for the first time in history, the separate continents of Asia and the Americas. Hessler’s point is to help readers understand the provenance behind these and other artifacts, from their culture to their significance.
The pivotal moment in the narrative, of course, is the 1492 contact between European explorers and the people of the Americas. Nothing would ever be the same for either.
“On the European side, the before is a tale of exploration, bravery, greed, the possibility of vast riches and a high-stakes treasure-seeking gambit played out on the high seas,” he writes. “The before, for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, consisted of large populations living in settlements and city-states across vast geographical sweeps of Mexico, and Central, North and South America.”
For these peoples – the Taino, Nahua, Maya, Wari, Inca – their cultures, cities, art and architecture, which had endured for thousands of years, were about to come to a vicious end: “Disease, enslavement, forced conversion to the Christian faith, torture, mass execution and the loss of their languages and rituals.”
“The Conquest of Tenochtitlan,” unknown artist. 1650-1700. Kislak Collection.
Hessler is a traveler and mountain climber, ranging from Guatemalan jungles to the 120-degree heat of Joshua Tree National Park. This travel becomes paramount to his historical knowledge and emotional appreciation for each object.
“It’s not just purely an intellectual exercise,” he says. “There is definitely a deep connection to the stuff I study. I think that is because of the travel and what it feels like to be where it came from. When I talk to people about the objects, I try to give that passion back. I try to talk about [the artifacts] in a way that doesn’t disconnect them from where they came from.”
It works. “Collecting” tells the story of civilizations and peoples long vanished. They can still speak to us, across the centuries.
Hessler’s self-imposed mandate: “Tell the story of the objects. Tell the story of the collection. Tell the story of what we can learn from how they got here. And those stories are really, extremely compelling.”