New Exhibit at Special Collections Unearths UChicago’s Research in Mexico

New Exhibit at Special Collections Unearths UChicago’s Research in Mexico

The following appeared in UChicago News on 18 August. 

Since the late 19th century, UChicago anthropologists, scientists and linguists have found in Mexico’s landscape and culture the opportunity to discover unique environments and populations.

The University’s scholarly explorations of Mexico have ranged from Howard Taylor Ricketts’ investigations of the typhus outbreak to Robert Redfield’s linguistic studies of isolated Mexican villages and Friedrich Katz’s biographical research on the political legacy of Pancho Villa.

An exhibit at UChicago’s Special Collections Research Center“Researching Mexico,” explores this century-long tradition of research and exploration in Mexico. Documents, photographs and artifacts chronicle various expeditions made to Mexico by UChicago scholars.

Seonaid Valiant, one of the exhibit’s two co-curators, said the goal of the exhibit was to capture UChicago scholars in “mid-thought” as they encountered and studied unfamiliar Mexican environments for the first time.

“We’re coming into the middle of the story,” said Valiant, PhD’14. Many of the items on display are personal journal entries or early drafts of studies that were never actually published. This approach is intended to provide an intimate cross-section of the way UChicago scholars thought and felt about the country in which they found themselves.

The exhibition benefited from the scholarly contributions of Profs. Mauricio Tenorio and Emilio Kouri, who each hold appointments in History, Romance Languages and Literatures, and the College. UChicago is home to some of the nation’s leading figures in Mexican Studies, as well as the Katz Center for Mexican Studies, which promotes interdisciplinary scholarship on Mexico. The Katz Center will host a Sept. 18-21 conference of Mexican historians, with a theme of "Mexico in the World, the World in Mexico." 

Valiant said the overall trend in research over the past century has been a move from thinking about the indigenous Mexican people as “primitive” to an emphasis on what she calls “cultural relativism.” Researchers became interested in all the aspects of indigenous ways of life, including architecture and language. To reflect this change in perception, the exhibit includes scholars’ original private notes on languages like Yucatec and Nahuatl, as well as dozens of photographs, displayed on iPads, which capture what social life was like in Mexican villages.

The exhibit is divided into sections that each profile the work of a specific scholar. One of the earliest of these sections commemorates Ricketts, a pathologist best known for identifying that wood ticks carried Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In 1910, Ricketts traveled to Mexico to apply his findings to a typhus outbreak in Mexico City, but died of typhus just four months later. The Mexican government lauded his work, and the original blood slides Ricketts used to track the spread of typhus among Mexican populations are displayed in the exhibition.

Initial studies of Mexican populations portrayed the indigenous people as primitive and almost subhuman, but the research of later anthropologists was deeper and more perceptive about the people of Mexico. The section of the exhibit featuring the work of Robert Redfield showcases this change by displaying Redfield’s private letters to his wife. In one, Redfield describes taking an initial census of the diverse population of the Chan Kom village; in another he describes the emotions he felt while listening to the villagers smoke and sing folk songs at night. Redfield conducted field studies in Chan Kom and Tepotzlan until his death in 1958, often bringing his wife and children along with him.

This exhibit culminates in a display case focusing on the work of Katz, the historian whose biography of Pancho Villa took him more than 25 years to write. Katz, who emigrated to Chicago from East Berlin, was an ardent scholar and researcher who postponed publishing his book several times to incorporate what he called a “snowballing of [new] evidence”—the exhibit displays letters written to his publisher asking for an extension on the biography.

To accompany the research on display, Valiant and co-curator Kathleen Feeney chose to set out a number of research materials from the Special Collections archives. These include a poster for a romantic Mexican movie, Mexican books with subversive anti-American messages, and colorful broadsheets printed with the lyrics to corridos, or Mexican folk songs with subjects that range from lust to alcoholism to political revolution.

“Field research in Mexico provides a perfect example of the way archives in Special Collections function as interrelated original sources,” said Daniel Meyer, University archivist and director of Special Collections. “Researchers studying Mexico can move easily from field notes in faculty papers to historical manuscripts, from records of University academic departments to collections of literary and personal papers.”

“You have to consider—which are the items that are most symbolic and bring a lot of meaning [to the exhibit]?” said Valiant of the selection process. “We were looking to have things that reinforced each other across the gallery ... Hopefully that helps to get the audience to ask questions.”

The exhibit is free and open to the public and will remain on display until Oct. 4. For more information, visit

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September 10, 2014