Exploring our hemispheric pasts through TU’s astonishing archival collections

Woven throughout primary documents, first edition texts or the yellowed edges of old photographs are stories. While physically holding an artifact covered in the fingerprints of history, scholars are able to uncover narratives that often reshape our understanding of the past. Appreciating the power of archival material, H.G. Barnard Associate Professor of Western American History Brian Hosmer developed an initiative to better utilize The Helmerich Center for American Research (HCAR) and McFarlin Library Special Collections and University Archives in classrooms at TU.

Hosmer’s project is called Cultures of the Americas (COTA). “This is a faculty-driven research and teaching initiative that nurtures cross-disciplinary teaching and research by drawing on existing resources from departments and programs across the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences, as well as materials housed at McFarlin Library, HCAR and Gilcrease Museum,” Hosmer explained.

Collaborative and cross-disciplinary

Helmerich Center for American Research
Helmerich Center for American Research

The name Cultures of the Americas was carefully worded to encompass the full goal of COTA. Cultures is plural because most of the humanities and arts entail culture in some way. And Americas is a hemispheric idea, which encompasses all parts of North and South America. “The beauty of ‘Cultures of the Americas’ is it corresponds to the breadth of collections at Gilcrease and McFarlin Special Collections,” Hosmer said.

It is important to understand not only what COTA is, but also what it is not. COTA is not a degree program, center or institute. Instead, it is a platform to enhance what departments and faculty are already doing. By providing grants for TU faculty to engage in collaborative research or teaching around the collections, COTA is an opportunity for TU to nurture scholarship while leveraging the rich resources of Gilcrease, HCAR and McFarlin Library.

Alex Patterson, HCAR’s administrative assistant, is already working with HCAR internal grant recipient and Professor of Anthropology Thomas Foster on a project that has TU students and colleagues comparing HCAR’s inventory of Spanish colonial documents with those at the Archivo de las Indias in Seville, Spain. “The goal is to identify documents that will be useful for the team’s ongoing research into the environmental reconstruction and European-Native American interaction during the historic period,” Patterson said.

COTA also organizes conferences and a series of monthly work-in-progress seminars. “The seminars nurture a community of local and regional scholars,” noted Hosmer. “They provide opportunities for participants to share their unfinished research projects in an academically constructive environment.” From Cameron Seglias at Freie Universität Berlin to HCAR’s very own Duane H. King Postdoctoral Fellow Travis Jeffres, attendees learn about their exciting research findings.

On Nov. 1, COTA is excited to host a conference, Rethinking Colonialism in Mexico and the Americas: Past, Present and Future. Attendees will take in panels on religion, migration and conquests, as well as enjoy a Native American drum circle and that Tulsa festival staple – food trucks.

Incubator for the humanities

Envisioning HCAR as an incubator for the humanities, Hosmer would eventually like to see the courses being designed by COTA actually held in rooms at HCAR. “When I was developing this, I thought, ‘How do we get more people out there to HCAR?’ Some of what we are doing is designed to populate the building,” he added.

For now, Hosmer brings his Oklahoma history class to HCAR and McFarlin Special Collections throughout the semester in order to teach students how to read maps, manuscripts and even photographs. Teaming up Mark Dolph, curator of history at Gilcrease, and Marc Carlson, director of special collections and university archives at McFarlin Library, they instruct students on how to handle and interpret primary documents. “For example, photographs are the most complicated things to read of all because they leave the impression of reality, but there is staging and composition,” Hosmer explained.

Students are more engaged with being investigative historians, and there is an excitement around the ceremony of using original artifacts. Hosmer enjoys reminding students, “In the entire history of the world, this is the only one of these. That’s what an original document means.”

Inspiring future historians, curators and scholars

COTA emphasizes partnerships among departments because the archives is not only for historians. When Chapman Associate Professor of English Laura Stevens teaches the history of the book, she has one name to call: Marc Carlson.

Example of incunabulum

Using TU’s collection of late-medieval manuscripts and early modern printed books, including an example of an incunabulum (the term for a book printed in Europe in the years soon after the invention of moveable type), Carlson delves into the history of print. “He is great at explaining to students how current technology developed and how conventions changed from the late-medieval to the early modern periods,” Stevens said.

Stevens uses archival material to help students think about their subject matter in terms of material objects. These include broadside ballads from early British North America and contracts established between Europeans and indigenous Americans.

Kirsten Olds, associate professor of art history, recently brought her history of photography class to HCAR to research little-known photographs. Students wrote short interpretative essays, some of which may appear on the center’s searchable collections website. “Because of the richness of these resources, students have had the opportunity to make sense of new information, to tell stories using objects, to conduct in-depth research and to translate their ideas to the public – in short, to think like historians and curators,” Olds said.

From history students reading maps to art students researching photography, studying culture is a founding principle of American studies. However, “COTA thinks hemispherically and encourages links beyond as well as between humanities disciplines,” Hosmer observed. “We should consider COTA as American studies refashioned for the 21st century.”