Retracing Colonial Cities
Barry L. Ruderman Conference Exhibition, Stanford University, 19 October 2017–6 April 2018
A seventeenth-century urban revolution, centered in the Low Countries and northern France, sought to use carefully-planned spatial organization as a means of enhancing economic productivity, defensibility, and social cohesion. Maps were the slate on which planners could experiment, share, reproduce, and erase. Dunkirk was in many ways typical of Flanders communities: port-focused, on soft, sea-level soil, with a large, vocal maritime population eager to protect itself. But its strategic position and economic vivacity stood out to early modern observers. Only forty-five miles from Britain (only Calais is closer), and ten miles from present-day Belgium, Dunkirk’s economy demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive conflict and blockade. Its transformation into a fortress and canal city under the auspices of visionary engineer Sébastien le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, was part of a concerted plan not only to threaten France’s Protestant rivals–England and Holland–but also to envision the future French city. The maps included in this exhibit chronicle his and his protege Benjamin de Combes’ repeated efforts to expand Dunkirk, and follow the latter as he embarked on a global journey to reproduce ideas he first practiced at Dunkirk elsewhere in the fledgling French empire.
Global Visions: Artists Reaching Beyond Boundaries
Princeton University Art Museum, 8 October–8 November 2015
(with Natalie Berkman) This installation considers the ways in which art expresses and witnesses the diffusion of cultures throughout the world. Global Visions captures in prints, drawings, paintings, and photographs a phenomenon with which historians engage in an effort to explain globalization. Much of the so-called “international history” produced during the 1950s served to reinforce the West’s ideological duel with the Soviet Union and Communism. Other scholars rigidly focused on national histories. Both styles principally relied on textual manuscript sources: letters, diaries, and official accounts. The sweeping social and cultural shifts of the 1960s, however, catalyzed a new generation of historians eager to engage with art, photography, and music (in addition to text) in their efforts to explain the global past. Exploring paintings, prints, and other creative primary sources, experimental figures as Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski, William McNeill, and Natalie Zemon Davis reexamined such transformative global events as the scientific and industrial revolutions, the evolution of modern warfare, mass immigration to the New World, colonialism, and the dawning of the atomic age. In part through their efforts, historians increasingly incorporated art as a means of recovering historical lives, figures, movements, and ideas. Drawn from more than two hundred years of American, European, Asian, and Oceanic art, the works on view offer valuable insight into what global history is: the study of how different peoples interact with one another on a transnational level, through textual, visual, physical, and intellectual forms. Notably absent is the nation in isolation. Instead, transcendent themes of migration, the dangers of imperialism, the ideals and realities of modernity and knowledge, and the blending of cultures dominate Global Visions. These works, from The Universe Is Created and A Philosopher Shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump to Bridge to Babylon, exemplify art’s critical role in helping us understand the consequences of reaching across political borders. This installation is organized on the occasion of the interdisciplinary conference “The Transformation of Global History, 1963-1975” (Princeton University, October 9-10).
Constructing La Belle Époque: Historical Documentation in the Search for Utopia, 1886–1936
Aidekman Art Gallery, Tufts University, December 2009–January 2010
(with Jennifer Burtner) Utopias are dangerous. They are the destructors of nations and the poison of nationalism, an excuse for genocidal repression and the implementation of eugenics. Yet their very conceptualization is enough to catalyze the advancement of the arts and sciences, the rise and fall of empires, and to satiate our desires to reach for the sky. Utopias are constructs of our imagination. In them, anything is possible, all of our hopes and dreams are realized, and threats to our existence, let alone our happiness, are quietly and effectively suppressed. Globalization was—and remains—the search for improvement, for betterment. These two narratives typified, rather than epitomized social exploration in the West in the formative decades immediately before and after the First World War. For rural America the search for utopia was both philosophical and commercial; the Transcendentalists redefined the power and knowledge of the individual, spurring the intellectual growth and influence of rural New England. Urban Americans too reaped the benefits of globalization. Their motives, however, were as much to shape the hierarchy of power as to increase social mobility and the advancement of knowledge. Constructing la Belle Epoque: Historical Documentation in the Search for Utopia 1886-1936 examines two previously neglected case studies that typify both the hopes and aspirations of America in the formative decades around the First World War, as well as the excesses and discriminatory beliefs that pervaded American culture.