Penn Library

CULTURAL READINGS: Colonization & Print in the Americas


Introduction to "Cultural Readings: Spanish Representations of the New World"

An exhibition selected from the collection of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation
Rosenwald Gallery, Sixth Floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University of Pennsylvania, November 7, 1997 - February 20, 1998

Michael T. Ryan, Director of Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library

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Note: Links in this essay refer to related pages in the exhibition.

The Jay I. Kislak Foundation has one of the more important collections of books and manuscripts relating to the earliest moments of European contact with the New World. It is by any measure a superb and thoroughly remarkable collection, carefully assembled over the past thirty-five years by a man committed to the lasting importance of the subject he is documenting. The collection's range embraces colonial America, early Floridiana, and colonial Mexico. Its center of gravity, though, is the Maya culture of present-day Mexico and Guatemala. To be sure, the collection has a generous share of highspots in the literature: seminal works by Columbus, CortÚs, Las Casas, Peter Martyr, Acosta, and many others. But it also has much to offer that is truly unusual and unique: unpublished letters and documents from some of the key personages in the colonization of the Americas, and sixteenth-century manuscripts in indigenous languages. This is a serious collection formed by a serious collector.

"Cultural Readings" presents a small but choice selection from the Kislak collection. It offers a series of related perspectives on the different ways in which, principally, the Spanish understood the New World and its indigenous peoples in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although the Spanish have been justly criticized over time for their treatment of native peoples, Spanish observers could be much more sensitive to indigenous cultures than a hasty rehearsal of the "black legend" would suggest. Missionaries may have been rapacious idol smashers and cultural bulldozers, but they were also thoughtful and perceptive observers who documented customs and traditions that barely-if at all-survived the shock of colonialism. The Spanish and others who chose to look carefully at the peoples of the Americas discovered not only exotic peoples but also rich civilizations going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This revelation would, in time, prove a powerful antidote to the pervasive Eurocentrism that informed so much of what was done to and what was written about the peoples of the Americas.

The present exhibition is the first major selection from the Kislak collection displayed outside Florida, where it is housed. The University of Pennsylvania Library is grateful to Jean and Jay Kislak for their willingness to share their treasures with the scholarly community of his alma mater.

Exhibition Contents | Introduction | Essays | Bibliography & Links

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