Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, Senior Registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office.
Recently, National Archives conservator Morgan Zinsmeister and I traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, which once stood on the border between the United States and Mexico.
On the two-hour drive south from Denver to Pueblo, we saw the snow-capped Rockies and Pike’s Peak. In Pueblo, we walked the streets and soaked up the atmosphere of the Old West.
The location itself added another level to understanding and appreciating the history that took place there. David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, makes the point better than I could when he said:
The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo is a milestone in American history that ended a war and reshaped our country. We are honored to share this peace treaty with the El Pueblo Museum, built on the site of 1842 trading on this historic international border.
According to El Pueblo Museum director Dawn DiPrince:
The “Borderlands” exhibit expands what most Coloradans think they know about Colorado. The people and families of southern Colorado are distinct from the rest of the state. . . . We have a rich, cultural heritage, and many of us have protected these traditions and resisted assimilation. This unique and hybrid history is integral to a broader understanding of the multi-dimensional Colorado story.
Have you ever thought about what a sense of place brings to viewing objects in a museum? Maybe you are conveyed to the banks of the Seine in the paintings of Claude Monet or taken to the South Pacific by the works of Paul Gauguin. Albert Bierstadt’s stunning images of the American West take you through unreachable canyons in breathtaking views.
The written word can do the same, sometimes in different ways. Charles Dickens paints with words the life and trials of the London poor in the middle of the 19th century. Thomas Hardy takes us to the blustering moors of the Dorset countryside.
When viewing original documents, being close to the written words and the paper they are written on may give us chills, and the feeling that you are in the room with the author.
The harbor of Hong Kong daily echoes with the salutes of the most powerful men-of-war of England, Russia and Germany [Despatch of American Diplomat, Hong Kong, 1898]
In this quote, we can hear guns booming in Hong Kong and can visualize the great European powers flexing their muscles in search of Chinese territory and new markets.
In others, the historical figures we know only as frozen statues are revealed as human beings. In a letter in his own hand, George Washington wrote to a friend of his dislike of sitting for portraits, and in another he wrote, “the truth is, I go out nowhere; and those who call upon me, observe a silence which leaves me in ignorance in all these matters.” Yes, the Presidential bubble has been around from the beginning, first settling over George Washington at his Mount Vernon home.
In my own experience at the National Archives, I have had the rare privilege of sharing with museum audiences original letters of the Founders, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, and Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. There are cases where the venue itself adds another deeper, often more compelling level to the viewing experience.
Just a couple of years ago, I visited Abraham Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, and was able to walk the same floors the Great Emancipator did when thinking through the words to be put into the Emancipation Proclamation.
The importance of place was never greater for me personally than when National Archives conservator Terry Boone and I took the Mauthausen Death Register to the Mauthausen Memorial Museum in Austria.
The register was created in the infirmary of the Nazi concentration camp and maintained by clerks who were inmates themselves. The clerks recorded the names, ages, and other details of the deaths of thousands of victims between 1938 and 1945 in seven volumes.
One column is titled “cause of death.” Of course, they were unable to write down the actual cause, such as being shot, beaten, gassed, worked to death, etc., but they were able to devise discreet codes. The U.S. Army liberated Mauthausen in May 1945 and swept up the registers and other records that documented Nazi atrocities. These records and testimony of the Mauthausen clerks were critical in obtaining convictions at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
In 2013 the Memorial Museum organized an exhibition about the camp’s history. The exhibition was located in the basement of the Mauthausen camp infirmary, where the registers were created. Talk about a sense of place and chills!
The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed in what is now a neighborhood of Mexico City on February 2, 1848. It was officially titled: “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic.”
For the price of $15 million, the treaty ended war with Mexico and transferred ownership of lands that became California and parts of what became New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming.
The war with Mexico began in early 1846 in the aftermath of the U.S. annexation of Texas. Texas annexation and the war with Mexico that followed took place in the larger historical context of Western expansion, Indian wars, and the growth of slavery in the West.
The three pages shown in Pueblo are from one of two duplicate originals signed in iron gall ink by American diplomat Nicholas Trist and Luis G. Cuevas, Bernardo Couto, and Miguel Atristain as plenipotentiary representatives of Mexico. Each page was encapsulated in the Conservation Lab at the National Archives, and then matted and sealed between sheets of ultraviolet filtering acrylic.
The National Archives also houses the Exchange copy of the Treaty, which is bound with an elaborate cover, tassels, and skippet. This version does not travel due to its fragility.
The El Pueblo Museum is one of eight museums in Colorado History’s community museum system. During the past year, attendance at the museum has increased 150 percent. DiPrince attributes the increase to services more focused on the local community. An ongoing archaeological dig takes place on the museum grounds.
I am most grateful for all the support and assistance received from the El Pueblo staff, particularly Dawn DiPrince, Dianne Archuetta, Zach Werkowitch, and Jose Ortega.