Conundrum Question: Fact vs. Fiction in the Historical Novel

Readers love historical novels. Fiction rounds out the details of history while helping us understand history’s wider ramifications. But, as Hannah Zuber noted here recently, “Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested.” This difficulty is discussed in my recent essay “A Critical Clarifier” where I said “assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.” How then can the novelist with a high regard for historical veracity minimize distorting the past?

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, I happened upon a description of the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppe Zangara. This little-known event is seldom reported in histories of the 1930s, perhaps because Zangara missed his target with all five of his shots at Roosevelt. One of the bullets, however, struck Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak. And in Cermak’s life and later death lay a terrific real-life struggle yielding more than enough drama and excitement for a novel. I immediately knew I had to write this story of Chicago in 1933.

Still, decisions had to be made. How should I relate this in novel form without falsifying the very real experiences of the participants?

My essay had distinguished two types of historical novels, those that relate lives of famous historical characters, and those that focus on un-noteworthy people in the midst of historical events. Although both strive for what Simon Schama calls the “imaginative re-enactment,” the latter, which I named “Historical Context Fiction,” avoids at least some of the potential falsification pitfalls.

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I therefore chose to construct Illusions of Magic around the actions of fictional Chicago residents during the weeks that included the nineteen days between Anton Cermak’s wounding February 15th and his death on March 6, 1933. With Cermak’s struggle to live, the ensuing political intrigues, and the city’s extraordinary grieving over his death, I had a sturdy spine upon which to hang fictions involving adventure, love and compassion in the Windy City during the Great Depression.

Two questions remained to be decided: How much of the Cermak story should be included, and how should I go about integrating that history into the novel?

Following the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, Mayor Anton Cermak had arranged to meet with FDR in Miami, where the president-elect was vacationing. The mayor was hoping to obtain a promise of federal funding to help Chicago out of a severe financial shortfall brought on by the Great Depression. After all, when the tide finally turned during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of ‘32, it was Mayor Cermak who seized the microphone to announce the release of all of Illinois’ 58 delegate votes to Roosevelt, helping FDR gain more than the two-thirds majority required for nomination.

That fateful night of February 15, 1933, at Miami’s Bayfront Park, Cermak strode to the car from which Roosevelt had just concluded a brief speech. The large crowd that had gathered was still applauding as Cermak shook hands with the president-elect and they exchanged a few words. Shortly, five shots exploded from within the front rows of the crowd. People screamed. Someone cried, “Stop that man!”

Giuseppe Zangara, a small man with a troubled life, had fired a .32-caliber pistol, trying to kill Roosevelt. But the bullets missed. Along with three others, Anton Cermak was hit. Zangara was quickly subdued and carted off to jail. Roosevelt insisted on taking the wounded mayor to the hospital in his limousine.

The importance of this event cannot be minimized—the shooting risked the life of the president-elect at a crucial time in United States history (he would be inaugurated as president less than a month later).

Although the shooting was not local, the serious wounding of the mayor had a huge impact on Chicago. A poorly-understood fact surfaced in its aftermath: should the mayor die, no legal process existed for his replacement. Not only did this pose a practical difficulty, it gave rise to political machinations and intrigue such as the city had never before known. It saddled Chicago with monumental uncertainty and became the important historical focus for my novel.

At this point, a wide choice existed for uniting the Cermak story with my concept of a protagonist who takes on a dangerous quest, accidentally encounters a sweetheart after twenty years, but then discovers that caring can clash with familial bonds and the necessity for compassion.

I decided the most unobtrusive way to integrate the Cermak story was through the experiences of a major player in the fiction. Precinct captain Liver Jack Horn, although not the protagonist, is arguably a very important character. Early on, he lectures his sister on the importance of the city’s administration during the downturn:

There’s ‘most a million people who wants work, can’t find any. Some are so bad off they’re eating garbage. You remember last fall, down on Lower Wacker Drive? Remember all those men—musta been a hundred—sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes? Who d’you think’s leading the way to helping people out so they don’t end up there? It’s me and the City—what you call ‘the machine.’

Late in the book, Liver Jack witnesses the ceremony at the Bohemian National Cemetery:

There, in the carpeted and roped-off area, the mayor’s three daughters wept as they sat in the family’s space. Nearby were hundreds of Bohemian Odd Fellows arrayed in their red or blue ornate collars trimmed in gold, along with Knights Templar in uniform, and a group of children from the Bohemian Orphanage, each holding a white flower.

James Rada, an officer in the Lawndale Masonic Lodge, of which the mayor had been a member, was conducting ceremonies while most of his Lodge members stood in solemn attention. Liver Jack regularly cupped his hands over his face and blew on them to impart some warmth as he awaited the final ritual.

These glimpses suggest the novel’s historical component. Alongside but not sampled here is the story of Nick Zetner, stage magician. Short of work because of the poor economy and diminished vaudeville bookings, Nick reluctantly accepts the task of finding and returning stolen goods for a rich but sleazy banker. Yet this quest leads him to uncover, after a lapse of twenty years, a long-lost love that is subsequently rekindled.

The topic of this article is fact versus fiction in writing the historical novel. Through Liver Jack’s experience and discourse in Illusions of Magic, the reader relives the day-to-day political theater so characteristic of the times, details of the hospitalization and treatment of the mayor, and the great loss that Anton Cermak’s passing delivered to the city of Chicago 83 years ago. This slice of history proceeds in parallel with Nick’s story, combining fact with fiction in what I hope is an informative, as well as entertaining, amalgam.

J.B. Rivard is a local writer and illustrator and the author of the historical novel Illusions of Magic. More information about his work can be found at www.illusionsofmagic.com.

Chicago Open Archives

In the same spirit as Open House Chicago, Chicago Open Archives welcomes the public to tour over 30 cultural institutions around the city. Chicago Area Archivists hosts the event that runs from October 6 to October 8, 2016. Visitors have the opportunity to take part in behind the scenes tours and will have access to several places that are normally off limits to the public. Along with tours, visitors can engage with librarians, archivists, and museum curators. Other events include film screenings and exhibit talks.

Please note that in order to tour and/or participate in some of the events, preregistration may be required. Registration closes at midnight on October 4, 2016. There may be admission fees at some of the institutions. Check out the Chicago Open Archive website to learn more about the event and participating cultural institutions.

Is the City Overdue in Renovating the Library in West Ridge? A Look at the History of the Northtown Library

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Historian, the online quarterly published by the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. All photographs used courtesy of their image database. Matthew Amyx is a History PhD Student at Loyola University Chicago and the Public Media Team Leader for the RPWRHS.

Over the summer of 2015, a Change.org petition to expand or rebuild the Northtown Library collected over 600 signatures from the residents of West Ridge. The one-story building at 6434 N. California Ave. hosts 140,000 visitors each year, but it has not been renovated since opening in 1962. Petition-signers complain that the library, despite its popularity and the hard work of its staff, lacks space, needs more up-to-date technology, and offers community resources insufficient to reflect the diverse demographics of West Ridge. Additionally, they claim the library’s parking situation, practically limited to street parking in a busy neighborhood, severely inconveniences patrons. While the petition has received considerable support and is backed by 50th Ward Alderman Debra Silverman, residents will need to exercise patience. Pamela Stauffer, West Rogers Park Community Organization Chairwoman, anticipates a minimum budget of $6 million for the endeavor, which is still in its planning phase, and recent library projects in Chicago have taken four years or more to complete. The petition signers should not lose hope, however, as very similar grassroots appeals created the very successful previous incarnations of the Northtown Library.

The first Northtown Library opened on July 31, 1939 at 2502 Devon Ave. It had taken seven years of organizing and petitioning by the local Kiwanis Club, Northtown Women’s Club, Northtown Business Men’s Association, and PTA groups. By its one-year anniversary the branch, led by head librarian Marion Smith, had issued 6200 library cards and hosted 145,000 visitors and circulated nearly 200,000 books. The library building, a double storefront, quickly became one of the most popular in the city, attracting patrons from far outside of its district boundaries which ran west from Ridge Ave. to the canal and south from Farwell to Bryn Mawr.

2200 w. Devon Avenue looking east from Bell Avenue
2200 w. Devon Avenue looking east from Bell Avenue

The library’s programs quickly outgrew its space. In January 1942, Smith started a very popular Book Review Club, but it had to meet in clubrooms on Maplewood Avenue. The library offered very strong children’s programs, such as a “Bring Your Dolly” story hour started by Children’s Librarian Bernice Perley in January 1942. Soon the weekly story hours were drawing an average of 233 children, but the space only accommodated 60 chairs. This unacceptable situation led West Ridge community leaders to petition Mayor Kelly for an enlargement. Sponsors included pastors, Boy Scouts, business groups, women’s clubs, Kiwanis, and the American Legion. The city approved the purchase and conversion of the adjacent corner building, a tavern and store, into staff space and a much needed children’s room.

North Town Library -Children with rag dolls
Girls participating in Doll’s Story Hour, c. 1945.

The Northtown Library made important contributions to community morale during World War II. It provided technical books to educate the defense workers that had flooded to Chicago. Families with members serving abroad checked out books on the countries where their loved ones were stationed. Smith told the Tribune that the library helped residents “take their minds off things for a while… These persons usually ask for mystery books – something which will challenge their brains and keep their minds occupied.” The library also offered avenues for the West Ridge community to aid those affected by the war. In July 1941, the library collected books to donate to locally stationed troops, and Perley organized a Girls’ Club that collected dolls for English war refugee children. In June 1945, the Northtown Library took part in a University of Chicago adult education program based on reading the classics, the first of several very popular Great Books programs that would occur on and off throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

2502 W Devon Avenue, North Town Library -Children with Army Lt. Godlewski.
2502 W Devon Avenue, North Town Library -Children with Army Lt. Godlewski.

In 1946, the library lost its lease on 2502 Devon, and moved two blocks over to 2710 Devon, away from the bustling business district. The library was still outgrowing its space, and in July 1947 the Edgebrook Library opened as a sub-branch of Northtown, with Elizabeth Vieser as assistant librarian under Smith. The space was painted blue and white and contained 3000 books, half for adults and half for children, with Northtown’s children’s librarians conducting the story hour there once a week. (The Edgebrook library has since moved three times and is now its own branch at 5331 W. Devon Ave.) Like today, space was constantly an issue during the period, with staff having to cram patrons in or find venues outside the library for programs. The advent of television dropped circulation some, but a fresh influx of families during West Ridge’s growth in the 1950s and 1960s brought it up again. Many empty-nesters became avid readers and brought their grandchildren to the library, bringing circulation in 1957 to 215,000. The demographics of the neighborhood were also becoming more diverse, and community members began organizing to petition the city for another expansion.

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Women using library materials, c. 1950.

Construction bids began in September 1960 on the library’s current location, 6435 N. California Avenue, which opened January, 1962. 125 feet wide with red brick, the new building included space for 50,000 books (up from 28,000 in the previous location), a multi-purpose room for library-sponsored activities, citizenship and Americanization classes for West Ridge’s growing immigrant population, and air conditioning. This was the first location intended as a permanent space, as the Devon locations had all been rented. Interestingly, the 2710 Devon location suffered a $10,000 fire the week before the move, although most of the books had luckily already been transported. The new library opened with a new Chief Librarian as well, Mrs. Gertrude Gscheidle. Designed by City Architect Paul Gerhardt Jr., the building cost $174,438.00 to construct and $56,490.70 to furnish. Despite the expansion, the Northtown Library still struggled with containing and staffing its programs; by 1965 it had the largest circulation of any library in the north side district, with 272,051 books loaned. The library’s popularity continued throughout the century, claiming the highest circulation of any library in the system in 1986.

The library was an important venue for children's groups, including the Boy Scouts of America.

As the history of the library demonstrates, the Northtown branch has always struggled to find space for its programs. This difficulty is only exacerbated by the growing needs of an increasingly diverse population, and is made considerably worse by the lack of available parking. The library has very few dividing walls, and while this trait gives it an open feel it also prevents the existence of private study space. In the comments section of the Change.org petition page, many of the signers sadly stated that they drove to other libraries in the suburbs because they did not feel the present building could meet their needs. The petitioners can take heart, however, in knowing that the city has listened to West Ridge petitions in the past to expand or renovate the Northtown Library.

Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History

Many people are familiar with Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp that held Union soldiers during the Civil War, but fewer know of Camp Douglas, a Union camp that held Confederate prisoners on Chicago’s South Side. Between October 8th and 14th, we—and others from Loyola, DePaul, and the community—worked as volunteer archaeologists on a dig with the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, uncovering elements of Chicago’s Civil War past, and learning some basics about archaeology and the processes that go into a dig.

From 1861 to 1865, Camp Douglas occupied about 80 acres in what is now the Bronzeville community. Initially, Camp Douglas was a training ground for Union soldiers, and would later train enlisted African Americans. The camp was designed to be temporary, since the Union was confident the war wouldn’t last long. But by February 1862, Camp Douglas had become a prison camp for Confederate soldiers captured in battle, since the Union Army had nowhere else to put them. Camp Douglas became one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the nation and had the most Confederate deaths of any camp. Poor sanitation and overcrowding in makeshift wooden shelters spread disease among the prisoners, resulting in approximately 4,500 deaths (the prison housed roughly 30,000 prisoners through the course of the war).  Security was slack and escapes were frequent; an estimated 500 Confederate prisoners escaped during the camp’s operation. After the war Camp Douglas was quickly dissolved, and for the most part, forgotten.

Continue reading “Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History”

A+ for LGBTQ Organization: The Gerber/Hart Library

Last Friday, I pedaled my butt to 6500 N. Clark Street to visit the Gerber/Hart Library, Chicago’s premier LGBTQ research space. At first I wondered if I was at the right building, as construction equipment and workers occupied the ground level, but the second floor was attractive and very open for business. An exhibit on LGBT music and a community bulletin board/table, offering free materials such as The Windy City Times, greeted me before I even entered the library. Once inside, I received an enthusiastic welcome from the staff member who offered a tour of the library, exhibits, and even the archives and special collections. The space was bright and inviting, equally embracing its academic mission and community-development role.

Continue reading “A+ for LGBTQ Organization: The Gerber/Hart Library”

Gender Gap Set in Stone

Chicago’s 580 parks are littered with statues of historically significant men. Some of these men may be familiar to you: Nicolaus Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. Others may be unfamiliar: Greene Vardiman Black, for example, the “father of modern dentistry.” While the accomplishments of these notable figures vary, their gender does not. In fact, there is not a single statue in Chicago that honors a historically significant woman.

The lack of public statues honoring women has received recent attention in the local media, and for good reason. In a city home to such important female leaders like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams, how can public depictions of women remain absent in Chicago’s parks?

The Chicago Park District told WBEZ Chicago that this absence is an issue of timing; the heyday of public sculpture in the city occurred before women earned the right to vote and were therefore not involved in public life. Yet this argument does not explain why men continued to be honored in Chicago parks long after women earned the right to vote in 1920. As recently as 2006, the Chicago Park District has added a new bronze statue of a male figure to its expansive park system.

Continue reading “Gender Gap Set in Stone”

When Police Brutality Protest Was White

The killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, and the resulting community reaction, has put police brutality protest in the spotlight. The mass marches, limited looting, and confrontations with aggressive or ‘militarized’ law enforcement that typified the Ferguson protests seem like a relic of an earlier age. Many have been quick to draw parallels to Harlem (1964), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Camden (1971), among others. I would like to add one more historical note, pulled from a chapter that I just so happen to be drafting this month. My case involves several similarities to Ferguson, but it is remarkable mainly because of a difference. The August 12, 1966, Summerdale March in Uptown Chicago was almost exclusively white.

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)
A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

An uncommon density of vacant low-rent housing in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a postwar job crisis at home attracted tens-of-thousands of working-class and poor whites from Appalachia and the south through 1970. By 1960, many considered Uptown the nation’s foremost “Hillbilly Ghetto,” even though the area’s low-income community also consisted of American Indians, non-southern whites, a smattering of African Americans, and a growing Latino population. Uptown’s postwar southerness has been ‘discovered’ time after time by various segments of the dominant culture: urban renewal advocates, social workers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, country music radio executives, the New Left, sisters religious, the War on Poverty, and on and on up through…urban historians.

When the SDS created the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP) in 1964 to work towards an interracial solution to urban poverty, Uptown was a natural choice for one of the early projects. By 1966, SDS members were clamoring to be part of the Uptown ERAP effort known as Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). Noted organizers like Rennie Davis, Richard Rothstein, Vivian Leburg Rothstein, Todd Gitlin, and Casey Hayden lived in Uptown, undertaking the slow and uneven process of pushing locals towards political action. Early successes included a sit-in at the city welfare office, and tenant strikes that resulted in contracts between collectivized renters and landlords. These efforts antagonized most of the local political and social elites. The notorious “Red Squad” of the Chicago Police Department quickly placed JOIN under surveillance, and soon relied upon information from a local JOIN member who had become disgruntled with the outside activists’ “Unamerican” opinions about increased involvement in Vietnam. A law student soon infiltrated JOIN on the CPD’s behalf.

Meanwhile, patrolmen from the local precinct prosecuted an aggressive policing of Uptown low-income teenagers and young people. When outside JOIN organizers—operating under the banner of “participatory democracy”—sought to create political consciousness around the grievances expressed by locals, police brutality came to the fore. JOIN leaders were mostly unprepared and unwilling to base organizing around the issue, preferring instead to confront economic injustices and the shortcomings of the local War on Poverty “Urban Progress” program. Yet anger simmered, most notably with the politicization of the “Uptown Goodfellows,” a street organization of southern and Appalachian tough guys. The Goodfellows took cues from similar black and Latino groups that were beginning to evolve from gangs into political units.

Read the rest at dvhunter.com

Separating Cultures in Opening the Vaults at the Field Museum

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On Friday, October 23, 2013, the Field Museum of Chicago launched its temporary exhibit Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair in their Holleb Exhibition Gallery on the first floor. To be clear, this post is not intended to be a journalistic review of that exhibit. If that is what you are looking for, I can only direct you to reviews by the Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson and the TimeOut Chicago reporter Jake Malooley. Instead, this post is intended to address a singular, structural assumption that other reporters have not fully discussed. This assumption is the strict and continued separation of Western civilization from other cultures—an intellectual separation that was embodied in the structure of the original Columbian Exposition of 1893, and reaffirmed one-hundred and twenty years later in the structure of Opening the Vaults.

Before addressing this assumption, the reader should first understand how Opening the Vaults is experienced. Visitors enter the exhibit by winding around a gray partition and into a small, square room. This room displays some basic information about the Columbian Exposition: a ledger of expenses, a map of the grounds, a blown-up poster of the Statue of the Republic, a timeline of events (from the publication of On the Origin of Species to the opening of the Field Museum in 1921), and a few exotic and practical artifacts, such as a heart-shaped coconut, the skeleton of a giant amphibian, and the original book of collections from the fair.

After leaving this introductory room, the visitor enters the giant, high-ceilinged hall in which the rest of the exhibit will take place. First, they will walk down the right side of the hall, and then they will turn the corner and walk down the left side of the hall, at the end of which, the gift shop awaits. All things considered, this space is both smaller and more basic than I had anticipated. Speaking of content, Opening the Vaults is separated into four distinct sections, indicated by overhanging banners. These sections are as follows:

          Appreciation and Preservation: Animals

          Demonstrating Natural Resources: Plants

          Understanding and Misunderstanding: Rocks & Fossils

          Displaying Other Cultures: Issues and Challenges

The first three sections of the exhibit, dedicated to non-human phenomena like animals, plants, and rocks, take up the entire right side of the giant hall. The final section, dedicated to displaying human cultures, takes up the entire left side of the hall. This separation could not be more conspicuous. The exhibit is like two halves of a single brain, with natural phenomena on the right side and human cultures on the left. But before critics praise the exhibition curators for devoting half of their floor space to the representation of non-Western cultures, they should also remember that this strict separation between Western science and “other” cultures is not exactly a progressive interpretation of the past. On the contrary, this separation was perhaps the foundational principle of the original exposition; it was built into its very structure.

Visitors to Opening the Vaults need only to study the map displayed in the entrance room to understand this strict separation. While the fairgrounds inside Jackson Park contained white, neoclassical buildings that were intended to represent the culmination of Western civilization—scientific buildings dedicated to fine arts, engineering, forestry, horticulture, transportation, and electricity—the fairgrounds outside the park were dedicated to displaying non-Western cultures. It was outside the fairgrounds, on the Midway Plaisance, that visitors beheld such attractions as the Hungarian National Orpheum, the Lapland Village, the Algerian and Tunisian Village, the Chinese Village and Theatre, Old Vienna, the German Village, the Turkish Village, and more. In a stroke of unparalleled symbolism, the Dahomey, West African Village was positioned directly across from an ostrich farm.

One result of the Columbian organizers maintaining a strict and superficial separation between cultures is the idea that natural science is the domain of Western culture. Visitors should contemplate the idea that plants, animals, and rocks are considered separate from non-Western cultures in the exhibit Opening the Vaults, just as disciplines like forestry, horticulture, and manufacturing were considered separate from non-Western peoples in the original Columbian Exposition. Also, as visitors to Opening the Vaults should notice that the right side of the great hall is rooted in individual, exceptional heroes of science. Visitors are encouraged to experience the story of plants, animals, and rocks through a specific taxidermist, anthropologist, geologist, and paleontologist. On the left side of the exhibit, however, visitors largely hear the stories of faceless, non-Western cultures.

Critics might argue that the relative obscurity of non-Western individuals is a consequence of our limited, historical knowledge, but the work of historians like Ian Tyrrell reminds us that reinforcing these imbalances often amounts to a confirmation of the narratives upon which they were originally based—narratives of American exceptionalism and triumphalism. Following this logic, there is likely to be more information about non-Western peoples at the Columbian Exposition than the American narrative would suggest. Also, the imaginative work put forth by the Native Americanist Daniel Richter, in his Facing East from Indian Country, emboldens historians to challenge the empirical restraints of historical sources, and recreate the individual experiences of non-Western participants at the fair in meaningful ways. Just because the Columbian Exposition happened in the past, does not necessarily mean that interpretations of the present have to remain bound to its limitations.

In returning to the gilded age, the American historian Robert Rydell, in his All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 (1984), argues that “the idea of progress made manifest at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, in short, was presented along racial lines in an organization system devised by several eminent scientists.” By the time of the Columbian Exposition, seventeen years later, this pseud-scientific separation had reached a high-water mark of cultural expression. As the social and cultural historian Gale Bedermann discusses in her book Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (1995), “The White City depicted the millennial advancement of white civilization, while the Midway Plaisance, in contrast, presented the undeveloped barbarism of uncivilized, dark races.” As Bedermann continues, “the Midway provided an implicit comparison between the White City’s self-controlled civilized manliness and the inferior manhood of dark-skinned primitive men…”

As the racial, exceptional, and gender-based analyses of historians like Robert Rydell, Ian Tyrrell, and Gale Bedermann have shown, the primary function of separating “other” cultures from the White City, as well as individual heroes from the unknown, was to construct a conscious and self-aggrandizing distinction. Western visitors could come to the fair and understand the extent of their civilization, modernity, and sophistication not just by visiting the domains of science inside Jackson Park, but by comparing those domains, and their respective heroes, to the massed and foreign cultures exhibited on the Midway. In a comparable way, visitors to Opening the Vaults are encouraged to understand the advancements of Western science generally, and the Field Museum specifically, in relation to representations of non-Western cultures.

I have tried to explain that a strict separation between non-Western cultures and Western science both existed in the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and continues to exist in the current exhibit Opening the Vaults; but why is this separation problematic? Why should we care? The problem is that separating “other” cultures from the narrative of Western science encourages people to think of the latter as something that developed in isolation, without influences and motivations from the rest of the world. This separation obscures the manifold ways in which Western, scientific discourse had utilized foreign cultures in order to define itself against them. But it also obscures the way in which Western, scientific discourse was built in partnership with non-Western peoples. For example, how can we properly understand the taxidermy of Carl Akeley without understanding the role that African guides played in helping scientists on their poaching excursions? Most importantly, the strict and continued separation between “other” cultures and Western science obscures the fact that Western civilization was based, at least in part, on self-conscious motivations that needed to be constantly justified.

In short, this post argues that intermingling Western and non-Western cultures fluidly in Opening the Vaults would more adequately reflect the historic relationships that characterize our past, not just direct connections between individuals like Akeley and their unnamed African accomplices, but more historic relationships between the institution of slavery and the rise of the American economy. In this case, as in the case of the Columbian Exposition, racialized notions of science were very much at play. While the current exhibit at the Field Museum displayed all cultures and peoples from the original exposition with attention, respect, and dignity, they did not seem to question the basic assumption that different cultures inhabit a space which is separate, both intellectually and physically. This seems to suggest that, while Western sensitivities about “other” cultures have matured since the Columbian Exposition, Western notions of inter-connectivity have not.

In closing, this post is about more than just Opening the Vaults. It is about how historians and curators deal with representing cultural space. Whether one group is trying to define itself through comparison, as in the case of the Columbian Exposition, or one group is trying to highlight other groups through isolation, as in the case of Opening the Vaults, can the practice of strict separation really be the most-creative way to represent the past? Is there a better way at hand?

What do you think?

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.