From Curation to Installation: The Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self Exhibit

What do gorillas, Finno-Ugric languages, the United States Army, and electromagnetic fields have in common? These seemingly disparate topics (among many others) were brought together in the voluminous intellectual grasp of Thomas A. Sebeok, 1920-2001. The prolific polymath enjoyed a long and distinguished career at Indiana University (IU) from 1943-1991. Sebeok started as Instructor and Linguist for the Army Specialized Training Program at IU, which provided intensive language training in Hungarian and Finnish for U.S. soldiers. After World War II ended, Sebeok stayed at IU as faculty. His expertise extended to areas of anthropology, folklore, and linguistics. He oversaw the formation of academic departments (Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies in 1965, now known as the Department of Central Eurasian Studies) and research centers (the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies) at IU from the 1960s through 1991. He simultaneously taught, gave lecture tours around the world, edited Semiotica for the International Association of Semiotic Studies, and wrote more than 600 articles and books over the years. Framing such a vast and deep scholar’s work for a modest archival exhibit proved to be a significant endeavor.

The legend himself: Thomas Sebeok, October 1976. IU Archives Photograph Collection, P0021757.

For this post, I want to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the curatorial and installation processes for an archival exhibit. Before I came to IU, I worked at a regional art nonprofit. One of my main responsibilities was overseeing the organization’s three art galleries. I found that my experience with installing art exhibitions was helpful, but I also found that archival exhibits present unique challenges—and more exciting opportunities for storytelling. The wide varieties of archival materials and space for informative historical captions combine for a seemingly infinite array of possibilities. The first step I had to take, then, was casting a net that was wide enough to be visually appealing but tight enough to capture a cohesive single exhibit. This latter consideration was harder than I anticipated!

When Carrie and Mary approached me about this exhibit opportunity, I knew I wanted to focus on Sebeok. I’ve been processing his substantial (~100 boxes) collection since October 2017. He has become a major role model for me, especially his disregard for traditional disciplinary boundaries in academia. I wanted to highlight the web of intellectual roles he inhabited, from semiotician and linguist to zoologist and journal editor. I did not want the exhibit to look like a hodge-podge sampling of random bits from the Sebeok collection. This is where curatorial framing came into play. I asked myself: What is it about all these areas of Sebeok’s study that captivate me? Why is it important? I think it is because it illuminates the truly cross-disciplinary nature of “science.” I have always been fascinated and impressed by scientists, but that world has always felt closed-off from me. I never did very well in math and hard sciences, and firmly rooted myself in art and history. Sebeok has shown me that these things are not disparate, as they are all human activities and human attempts to understand the world. From this the exhibit title was born: Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self. To translate this to the exhibit space, I decided to dedicate each case I was using to a different role: Sebeok as a master of languages, Sebeok as an academic leader, Sebeok as a renowned semiotician, and Sebeok as a skeptic. Within these cases I selected different materials: visual resources to catch the eye (I love all the program brochures and letterhead in the collection), correspondence to tell stories, and signposts to guide the viewer (in the form of biographical materials like press releases and news clippings).

Planning all of this was a more physically involved process than I anticipated. Over the course of a few weeks I was constantly ordering, opening up, investigating, and returning boxes from the collection. For each item I wanted to exhibit, I photocopied the original, placed the photocopy in the original folder, and logged the item in a list indicating its original box and folder placement. This is all necessary to ensure I can return the items properly once the exhibit is over. Throughout this process, I had to cross-reference the dimensions of each case to plan the exhibit layout. Captions ended up being the biggest spatial challenge for me. I authored long captions because so much of the exhibit material is conceptually dense and needs contextual information to tell Sebeok’s story. I could have written pages more of caption text, but cut myself off so as not to overwhelm the viewer.

A roll of polyethylene book strapping, a piece of foam core, a utility knife, and a ruler on a table.
The basic tools of exhibit mounting: foam core, a utility knife, a ruler, and a roll of polyethylene book strapping.

Physically installing the exhibit was definitely the most challenging part of the exhibit process. I anticipated this from my time working in art galleries, but the difficulties were unique. I didn’t have to worry about mats or frames, but mounting unique archival paper materials was intimidating. To mount an 8 x 10 in. piece of correspondence, I would first cut a piece of foam core board exactly to those dimensions. Foam core can be irritating: it is difficult to cut through with a utility knife and it sheds constantly. Making sure none of the foam backing extends beyond the dimensions of the material takes a lot of careful trimming. After I cut the backing, I would mount the material using polyethylene book straps. This part required careful choreography to keep the original document flat against the backing while pulling book straps across each corner and taping them down on the backside of the foam core. There is no one perfect method for this: it takes a lot of patience, finger dexterity, and adjustments, much like matting and framing artwork. Clean hands and short nails are also a must-have!

An archival exhibit’s beast of burden: polyethylene book strapping.

Some of the exhibited items took some creative problem solving to display. In order to mount a large bound volume from the Smithsonian National Zoo to a particular page spread, Mary Mellon custom made a book cradle out of mat board and strategically applied tape—a technique she learned during a workshop when she was a graduate student. We then rested the publication in the cradle and strapped down the pages.

A bound publication is held open on an inclined mount.
The Smithsonian National Zoo publication on a book cradle made by archivist Mary Mellon.

To display both sides of a fold out conference brochure, I scanned one side of the brochure and printed it at the same dimensions as the original. I then folded the reproduction to resemble the original brochure and displayed it face-up so viewers could read it.

A reproduction of a brochure for a 1986 "Science and Pseudoscience" conference.
A reproduction of a brochure for a 1986 “Science and Pseudoscience” conference used to show both sides of the program.

The most awkward item to mount was also a highlight of the exhibit: a fundraising newsletter from Francine Patterson for the Gorilla Foundation featuring Koko the Gorilla’s actual signature. The newsletter was printed on one sheet of folded paper. I wanted to display two facing pages, one with Koko’s signature and the other with the bulk of the letter text and images of Koko with her kitten. To do this I had to mount the pages on two separate pieces of foam core. I could not use book straps to hold down the inner corners of the pages, since they were on the same sheet of paper with a fold in the center. This made the item tricky to move around once in the case. I ended up resting it on clear plastic displays for added stability.

A printed newsletter with pictures of Koko the Gorilla and the gorilla's actual signature in ink.
Mounted correspondence from Francine Patterson for the Gorilla Foundation. Koko the Gorilla’s signature is visible on the bottom near the middle (“Fine Animal Gorilla”).

I hope these examples show some of the overlooked skills needed in an archive. Working on an archival exhibit requires skills in paper conservation, object handling (similar to art handling in a gallery setting), matting, aesthetic sensibilities, writing, and curation. It also takes time, collaboration, and a hearty dose of creative problem solving. Above all, I like to think that Thomas Sebeok would appreciate the eclectic matrix of skills that went into this exhibit.

Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self is on display now through March 29, 2019 at the Indiana University Archives (Wells Library E460, East Tower).

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