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New Exhibit at Special Collections

December 7, 2015

By Blair Salt

UTSA Special Collections at the John Peace Library is pleased to feature an exhibition curated by Dr. Juliet Wiersema’s AHC 4333 New World Manuscripts class. Power Without Words examines how pictorial Central Mexican manuscripts distinguished important figures without using text. This exhibition can be viewed in the JPL Special Collections reading room (located on the fourth floor of the library) Monday through Wednesday from 10 – 3 p.m. until January 31, 2016.



At first glance, these Central Mexican manuscripts can be disorienting. They are crowded and colorful, some parts are badly damaged and difficult to decipher, and some are presented in bizarre formats for a narrative, like a map. Yes. Maps were used to present a narrative (among other things).

The first time our New World Manuscripts class met in Special Collections to examine these documents and choose the manuscript we would study for the rest of the semester, we all had the same reaction: there was no way we would figure these things out and we were all going to fail this class. Undeterred by our lack of faith, Dr. Wiersema insisted we would get the hang of it.

She was right. With Elizabeth Boone’s Stories in Red and Black as our guide, we started to get a handle on how these historical documents worked. To be totally honest, it was not as difficult as you might expect. We learned how to identify characters and dates, how to recognize places, and even how to loosely interpret events. I won’t exaggerate and say we can read pictorial manuscripts like a book, but by the end of the semester, we could certainly look at a manuscript and identify its type, what culture produced it, and what sort of story it told. Not too bad for only three months of study.

One of the most ingenious things about these historical documents (and perhaps the most difficult when you start trying to decipher the nitty-gritty details) is that they convey an immense amount of information without using any text. There are occasionally phonetic devices used to elucidate certain words or names (think of the puzzles on a Lone Star bottle cap), but for the most part the manuscripts are “written” in images. This might sound simple or limiting, but I think the entire class would agree with me when I say these documents convey multi-layered information better and more efficiently than most alphabetically written books.

This complexity and the sheer abundance of information was the first – and probably the worst – problem we had to tackle when curating this exhibition. How could we simplify what we learned in an entire semester into something that fit into four glass cases?

We settled on the theme of power because it is one of the easier things to see in these documents without needing to know how to read a bunch of pictorial devices and symbols. Next, we divided the exhibition into four categories to fit the four cases: weapons, nose piercing, clothing, and seats. Some of these might sound like unusual markers for the upper class (nose piercing?), but all of these elements are used in the manuscripts to distinguish important and / or powerful individuals. If you find a figure wearing a tlahuitzli, wielding an elaborate atlatl, sitting on a high backed chair, or sporting a turquoise nose rod through his septum, you know he’s important; and if you want to know what these things are, what they mean, or at least how to pronounce them, you’ll have to check out the exhibition.

In the end, everything came together better than we expected. Many of the students working on this project had never curated anything in their life, let alone a public exhibit. Nevertheless, the end result of our efforts is genuinely impressive! The cases are both visually interesting to look at and easy to understand. Not only will you have the opportunity to learn how to decipher important pictorial elements used to distinguish characters of importance in these documents, but you also leave with deeper insight into the cultures themselves, such as what elements they considered important to their historical and cultural narratives.

Take advantage of this opportunity to learn about a completely different writing style and visit the first ever class curated exhibit at UTSA Special Collections!


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