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).

Influencing Academia: Denis Sinor’s Legacy at IU

Denis Sinor at 93
Denis Sinor at 93

Denis Sinor was an esteemed professor at Indiana University for over four decades. His work in the field of Central Eurasia shaped the way academics view the topic and area today. Sinor was born in Hungary on April 17, 1916, and was educated in Hungary, Switzerland, and France. Sinor was very active in the political scene in his youth, and during World War II, he served in the French Army as a member of the French Resistance. After his time in the military, he decided to enter the world of academia and after obtaining his MA in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University, he was appointed to its faculty.

In 1962, Sinor came to the United States as a visiting professor at Indiana University. His active professional life at Cambridge University surely influenced IU’s interest in him, as he wrote more than one hundred articles and reviews on the linguistics and histories of Inner Asia.

Defining Central Eurasia

Soon after joining IU’s faculty, Sinor was appointed to the head of the Uralic and Altaic program (later renamed the Central Eurasian Studies program [CEUS]). He served as the Chair for this program from 1963-1981, but continued to hold other important administrative positions as well as teaching and along the way, securing the title of Distinguished Professor, one of greatest honors IU bestows upon faculty, in 1975.

INUNRC
Inner Asian & Uralic National Resource Center (INUNRC)

In 1963, Sinor created the National Defense Education Uralic and Altaic Language and Area Center (later renamed the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center [IAUNRC]) and served as the Director from 1963-1988. From 1965 to 1967, Sinor was the Chairman for the Asian Studies Research Institute (later named the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies [SRIFIAS] in 2006). His work with these research centers, as well as the considerable amount of written work he produced, helped define the term “Central Eurasia” for the academic world.

Professional life

PIAC
PIAC

Professor Sinor also focused his considerable energy to professional service. He served as the editor of the Journal of Asian History (JAH) from its inception in 1967 until 2011. The JAH studies the regions of East, South, South-East and Central Asia before 1900. At IU, Sinor edited the Uralic and Altaic Series (over 174 volumes) and the Oriental Series. Sinor was a major force in the establishment of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference’s (PIAC) headquarters in Bloomington in 1962, for which he served as Secretary-General for numerous terms.

Sinor in North Pole
Sinor in the North Pole

Throughout his lifetime, Sinor traveled extensively in Asia, including Afghanistan, Chinese Turkestan, Soviet Central Asia, Northern Pakistan, Siberia, and Inner and Outer Mongolia. He received many honors within and outside of the United States from groups such as the American Oriental Society, the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, and was the twice holder of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1968, 1981).

Professor Denis Sinor passed away on January 12, 2011. Through the gift of his papers to the University Archives, his teaching mission can continue.  Those interested in learning more about Professor Sinor, his life and his professional activities, should feel free to contact the Indiana University Archives for assistance!

Behold! University administrative records can be interesting!

It may surprise some to know that a collection comprised of the records of a former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, namely that of Frank T. Gucker, 1938-1967, can actually be quite interesting. But in fact, this was the case. From interesting words used in everyday memos, such as “dashing,” “mellifluous,” “peripatetic,” and “bailiwick,” to a 1961 folder entitled “Teaching Machines” (this was the time of pre-Internet and manageable-sized computers) small tidbits of conversation and gems of information are sprinkled throughout this collection.

Some of the most interesting information came from discussions about the Intensive Language Training Center. While the University Archives does have a separate collection of Indiana University Intensive Language Training Center records which provides more substantial information about this program, in the context of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences records language program folders also address the ILTC.

To provide some background about what this program actually was, I’ll refer to the finding aid available in the Indiana University Archives Online. First created at IU in 1959 under the name, Air Force Language Program, the program was initially for the training of U.S. military members to speak Russian. In 1962, in order to move past U.S. Air Force affiliated programs, the name was changed to the Intensive Language Training Center (ILTC). It was at this time that the ILTC fell under the domain of the College of Arts and Sciences, becoming fully a part of the university. The following year, the ILTC became part of the Department of Linguistics, directed by Orrin Frink overseeing contracts with the Peace Corps as well as others and the Defense Language Institute (DLI) was established to standardize language training across military personnel.

ILT003

That being said, this collection contains correspondence regarding perceived improper use of the Language Lab, and its availability to students as well as people from the military training programs. Additionally, something I found interesting and slightly ‘political-intrigue-spy-movie-mystery-esque’ was a “directive” from the Embassy of the United Arab Republic to the Indiana University Egyptian student population, informing them that “neither they nor their wives are allowed to teach in the Language Center (formerly a division of the Air Force) or have any relationship with it.” The letter is dated July 9, 1963 and directed to Mr. Loutfy Zaki from Mostafa Issaka Cultural Attache. The letter further states, “Any disobedience to that ordinance means automatically that you will be subject to the punishment specified in that ordinance.” Doing a bit of background research into just what the United Arab Republic was and what this time period may have signified, I found that the United Arab Republic constituted a political union of Egypt and Syria, lasting from 1958 to 1961. In 1961, Syria withdrew following a military coup, soon followed by Yemen, thus ending the union. Egypt apparently continued using the name until 1971.

Needless to say, this collection’s span of almost 30 years (with the bulk of the collection from 1960-1964) reflects the times. From U.S. social movements and conflicts, affirmative action, the Kennedy Administration, to international conflicts of the time, including warring Middle Eastern countries including Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic (later Egypt), this collection holds up a mirror to these times and shows just how an academic institution, and particularly the college of arts and sciences, was impacted by the surrounding social and political culture. So don’t discount administrative records in a university archive when looking for interesting morsels of information and research fodder, because you never know what you might find tucked away!