September 27, 2010 — What compels us to leave our homes and travel to distant lands? How do we describe our adventures abroad, and what do we collect on our journeys?
The University of Virginia Library's international materials reflect the lives of diplomats, missionaries, artists and others whose occupations and passions have led to remarkable foreign encounters. The record of these individuals' travels – embodied in rare and unique items gathered from around the globe – illuminates the meaning and consequences of cross-cultural experiences.
A new exhibit opening Thursday at U.Va.'s Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture, "Global Collections at the U.Va Library: Engaging the World", features literature about, and relics of, international travel. Many items have close ties to the University, said Kelly Miller, the institute's head of programs and public outreach.
The exhibit, located in the main gallery of the Harrison Institute and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, begins with a collection of letters Thomas Jefferson wrote during his travels.
"We start off with Jefferson because we want to emphasize that Thomas Jefferson himself had significant international interests," Miller said. "He was well-traveled and very engaged in what was going on abroad. In fact, as ambassador to France he became acquainted with the major figures of the Enlightenment."
From there, the exhibition encourages patrons to consider the value in study abroad, as well as reasons for international involvement.
Military service is particularly well-represented in the Global Collections exhibition, Miller noted. In the early part of the 20th century, many U.Va students first visited foreign countries while on tours of duty in World War I.
A letter written by James Rogers McConnell, the former University student in whose memory the "winged aviator" statue was erected outside of Clemons Library, will be displayed. A volunteer in the French flying corps, McConnell is remembered as the last American pilot to die wearing French colors before America entered the war, Miller said.
The exhibit also aims to show the artistic benefit of foreign travel, she said. Rare books and manuscripts from such esteemed authors and veterans as John dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway will be on display.
Art and art collections are a major part of the Global Collections exhibit. Highlights include drawings of West Africa by African-American missionary and artist John Revey. A 17th-century illuminated manuscript and illustrations of "Shahnamah," the national epic of Iran, will also be on display.
With age, even the mundane becomes fascinating. The exhibit features the passports of various famous Americans, which Miller calls "bureaucratic ephemera of travels that everyone is required to have."
Travel guidebooks and souvenirs from decades past will be on display, commemorating both individual trips and their historical context.
The Global Collections exhibit seeks not only to ask why we travel, but also "what becomes the record of that travel?" Miller said. "How are you going to record your experiences?"
What's the coolest thing in the exhibition?
Miller has a hard time deciding. "Maybe some people would be surprised to see shoes, knives and jewelry from Afghanistan and Pakistan," she said. Col. Alan MacKenzie, a former University student who served in Kabul in the early 1950s, donated the items to the U.Va Library. Until now, Miller said the items had likely not been displayed.
University professors such as history professor Peter Onuf; Dariusz Tolczyk, an associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures; and Michelle Kisliuk, an associate professor of music, contributed to the exhibition, many of them helping to determine which pieces should be included.
Items in the collection are frequently used in teaching, Miller explained. She herself taught a University Seminar course last spring on global short stories – which will be offered again next semester – using items from the University's extensive collection.
Miller said she hopes that the exhibition will inspire not only new research projects and intellectual pursuits, but perhaps also works of art.
The offices of the President and of the Vice Provost for International Programs provided financial support of the exhibition, which runs through July 29.
An open house with the curators will be held on Oct. 20 from 5 to 7 p.m. Space is limited. RSVP by Oct. 12 to Judy Christian (434-924-4339 or email@example.com); if making contact by e-mail, use the subject line "Global Collections."