“Collecting for a New World: Treasures of the Early Americas” by John W Hessler (published by US Library of Congress and D Giles Ltd): A Review by Richard Maudslay

Many books have been written about the artefacts in museums and the histories behind them.  Fascinated by how some of these treasures have survived and the often tortuous routes by which they ended up in a museum, John Hessler, Curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection in the Library of Congress, takes this one step further.

Almost unknown in the UK outside specialist circles, Kislak was a lifelong collector of manuscripts and artefacts relating to the Americas and donated his collection to the Library of Congress in 2004. In this book, John Hessler takes the reader on a journey through more than 60 of these items, focusing on the sharp ‘Before and After’ historical dislocation caused by the Spanish Conquest.

Drawing on his personal career journey from naturalist to curator, Hessler is intrigued by the manner in which Victorian writers and explorers combined their interests in both the natural world and ancient history and archaeology as they explored the Americas.  For Hessler this was epitomized in the sixty-three volumes of Biología Centrali-Americana (1870-1902), edited by F. Ducane Goodman and Osbert Salvin, which not only contained detailed descriptions of native flora and fauna but also found room for Alfred Maudslay’s photos, drawings and descriptions of his expeditions to Mayan sites.

Hessler’s ‘Before Columbus’ chapters focus on writing and art and archaeology.  The chapter on writing contains many fascinating ideas, such as a discussion on how only the Mayan hieroglyphs can count as a true writing system when compared with other evidence from elsewhere in the Americas.  He reflects on how quickly written Maya fell into disuse following the Conquest, even though the spoken languages survived, and explores the attitudes of the Spanish towards those they conquered to try to explain this.

The chapters on writing, printing and documents after the Spanish Conquest include remarkable extracts from the manuscripts known as Columbus’s “Book of Privileges”. These bring together a collection of legal writs, royal charters and grants which help to explain the background behind some of Columbus’s actions.  The provenance of the copies of these documents, so beautifully illustrated in this book, is a mystery story in its own right.  Other documents reviewed in these chapters shed light on the growing ethical dilemmas (which started to concern some Europeans during the sixteenth century) about how to treat native populations.

In conclusion this splendidly produced and illustrated book is much more than a mere collection of photos of 60 notable artefacts.  As well as exploring their history and provenance, it gives copious detail on the historical and social environment in which they originated.  I found it fascinating and can wholeheartedly recommend it.

BMS Members may order copies from https://gilesltd.com/product/collecting-for-a-new-world and will get the benefit of free postage

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