THE JOHN CARTER BROWN LIBRARY staff and invited curators prepare public exhibitions of material selected from the collections.

Taming Nature | Gardens and the American Wilderness

Cultivating crops in garden settings defined human settlement in the early modern Americas. From Patagonia to the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence and beyond, Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous communities alike endeavored to grow plants for a staggering variety of human needs, testifying to their mobility and creative engagement with the natural world. Long before the arrival of Europeans, plants were grown for subsistence, medicine and myriad other uses. This small-scale cultivation stands in stark contrast to the export-driven, plantation-based monoculture of crops such as sugar, tobacco and cotton, as developed by Europeans in the late-sixteenth century.

This exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library captures the spectacular range of American gardens, from subsistence food cultivation – including Mesoamerican chinampas and walled European kitchen gardens – to medicinal plants and local dyestuffs. Beginning with early European views of the Americas as an embodiment of the Biblical garden of Eden, and concluding with gardens as a site of experimentation and crop selection, this selection of books, maps and prints from the Library’s collection – as curated by Bertie Mandelblatt and Stijn van Rossem – highlights shifting theories about the meaning and use of American nature, inaugurating a multi-year series on New World industry that will emphasize these and other issues in exhibitions and programming to come.

This exhibition is now on view in the MacMillan Reading Room.

Bodies of Water/Bodies at Work, the fourth exhibition in the Four Elements Series at the John Carter Brown Library, was on view in the MacMillan Reading Room through September 2018.

The early modern period (1500-1800) was an age of maritime empire, associated with ships plying oceans and fierce struggles for control of the world’s sea lanes. But seas, and bodies of water more generally, served multiple purposes beyond their transformation into highways of exchange. They functioned as waterways that transported people, ideas, bacteria, and commodities both locally and across the globe. They served as a tool for thinking about the changing nature of the world. And they allowed people to think about the composition of the human body, its capacity for work, and the types of relationships that people forged with one another on and off land – on maps, in treatises, in private letters and in intricate projects of colonial construction.

Long before French writers surveyed the Mississippi, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – seat of one of the greatest American empires – flourished in a lacustrine matrix expertly elaborated by the Mexica. This exhibition explores the many ways in which water - from the five interconnected lakes of what would become Mexico City to the five Great Lakes of New France - touched people’s lives, even those who never set foot on a ship or visited a port town. On the prow of a ship or as a conduit for knowledge about the globe, water shaped encounters both real and imagined, in the early modern Americas and far beyond.

This exhibition was curated by Ivonne del Valle (University of California, Berkeley), Katherine Ibbett (Trinity College, University of Oxford), and Molly Warsh (University of Pittsburgh).

Rooms of their Own: Dwellings of the Enslaved and the Free in the Early Americas 

The physical structures that housed those who lived in slavery in the early Americas are a potent symbol of the dehumanization of the millions of Africans and people of African descent whose labor built New World plantation societies. They are also a tangible embodiment of the social and economic system that left them at the mercy of profit-driven slave-holders. Slaves’ dwellings, like other features of the everyday material culture of the enslaved (including clothing and food preparation), represented the paradoxical point of convergence between the self-interest of planters and the self-interest of the enslaved. Planters who wished to spend as little as possible on housing their labor force often left the construction of these houses to the enslaved themselves, who, attempting by these means to improve the quality of their lives, have left traces of earlier and parallel models of architectural forms. 

Using items from the John Carter Brown Library’s unparalleled collections on the history of slavery in the Americas, this exhibition presents a narrative of slave dwellings that ranges from El Mina – the fifteenth-century slaving fort on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) – through the Middle Passage to plantations that represented, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois, a veritable descent into hell in a New World. The exhibition focuses on construction techniques used to build plantation slave dwellings, the domestic activities that took place within them, and the ways in which slave dwellings formed part of a larger colonial built environment. Finally, the exhibition questions the hegemony of plantation hierarchies, presenting evidence that points to alternative social arrangements in plantation America. With an eye toward the legacies of slavery, it ends by considering slavery and housing in the nineteenth century, as old metropole-colony political structures collapsed through revolution and new republican nation-states built on and through slavery emerged.

The exhibition was curated by Bertie Mandelblatt, Curator of Maps and Prints at the JCB.

Wars on Paper is on view in the Bolívar Room of the JCB. Curated by Marcela Echeverri (Yale University), this exhibition illustrates the five discursive and literary dimensions of the war of independence in South America, highlighting the ways in which the printed word was instrumentalized by contending sides. We explore the language of the monarchical restoration; insurgent reactions and counterpoints; the rise of a narrative of military events; circulation of texts that show the connectedness of revolutionary events in South America, the Caribbean and across the Atlantic; and radical legal transformations to the legal definitions of indigenous people and slaves that resulted from their integration in the independence project.

Recent exhibitions may also be visited virtually. The online version serves as a record of an exhibition and ensures that our audience will be able to view the treasures of the John Carter Brown Library from any place on earth with internet access. Many of these books may be seen in their entirety online on the JCB's Internet Archive site.

August to November 2007
Susan Danforth
March to August 2007
Rick Ring and Ted Widmer