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Professor John Howard Birss Jr. Memorial Program Exhibit Opening Reception

The 17th Annual Professor John Howard Birss Jr. Memorial Program’s celebration of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude began on February 1 2017, with the opening reception for the Library Exhibition. The exhibit opening was held in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center to celebrate the good works of Professor Christine Fagan and our two inaugural Birss Fellows (Allie Gowrie (’17) and Emily Stoeppel (’19)), while enjoying Colombian food and folklórico dance performed by members of  “Colombians in Rhode Island.”

Below are Professor Christine Fagan’s opening remarks.

Good Afternoon!

It has been my honor for the past 16 years to create exhibitions for the Annual Birss Memorial celebration of great works of literature.  One would think that I would have mastered this project by now, but the reality is that each year presents a new writer associated with a new archive and a myriad of unique circumstances.  This year was no exception.

In fact, it was especially true this year since I traveled to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin with the two Birss Fellows, Ali Gowrie and Emily Stoeppel.  These students were nominated by faculty members to have the opportunity to visit a major archive in order to research the papers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and select artifacts to be included in the exhibition.  I must say that I had some trepidation before the trip, having never taken students on an off-campus venture.  I woke up one night from a dream in which the students and I missed our plane flight.  We finally managed to get on another flight, but then landed in a chaotic third world country.  That is when I woke up!

I am happy to say that our actual trip to Austin was nothing like that and truly a wonderful opportunity.  The Harry Ransom Center is an internationally renowned Humanities research library and museum.  We began our experience at the Center by taking a guided tour, including the Gutenberg Bible, the first photograph even taken, a Frida Kahlo self-portrait and an exhibition of Elliott Erwitt’s photographs.  We then viewed selected artifacts in the Reading Room which were of special interest to us, including:

  • an illuminated manuscript of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven as well as a hand-written verse from the poem
  • letters from Jack Kerouac to Neal Cassady and a photocopy of Jack Kerouac’s journal from which he wrote On the Road, the work we celebrated in the 2007 Birss exhibition
  • and several of Shakespeare’s plays printed in the early 1600s, including a copy of the First Folio. That was certainly a treat!

We then set to work on researching the Papers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Having conducted research in advance using the online Finding Aid, we were able to quickly submit our requests for specific boxes of correspondence, photographs, and manuscripts.  Browsing through all these artifacts certainly gave us an appreciation for the life and work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The students thrived on this unique opportunity to have such a personal view into this life of this great writer.  Researching the archive turned out to be a three-person operation as one person turned the pages of artifacts, another recorded each artifact we selected, noting the box and file number as well as writing a description, and the third shot digital images of the selected artifacts.  All of this information was necessary to process the request for photoduplication from the Harry Ransom Center in order to create the exhibition here at RWU.

We selected artifacts related to the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, including the initial pages of the manuscript.  We also chose artifacts related to the Nobel Prize for Literature which Garcia Marquez won in 1982, including manuscript pages from his speech along with photographs of the event.  We selected photographs with family and friends, including Fidel Castro and Robert Redford and correspondence with celebrities, including President Bill Clinton and Salman Rushdie.  Finally, we selected Garcia Marquez’s response to Time Magazine’s question for a 1992 feature on “Great Goals.”  The question was:  “What should humankind aim to accomplish in the coming decades?”


That was definitely going in the exhibition!

Once our research was completed, we had the opportunity to meet with Professor Gabriela Polit of the Spanish and Portuguese Department at UT Austin and a colleague of Professor Lee Jackson here at RWU.  Professor Polit played a role in the transition of the Garcia Marquez Archive to the University of Texas at Austin, meeting with the family and the Colombian government during the process.  She explained that there was some controversy regarding the selection of the Harry Ransom Center as the location for the archive as the Colombian government felt it should reside in Colombia when Garcia Marquez was born and raised.  There were rumors that the decision was make so that the family could make more money on the transaction, but in fact, the family turned over the copyright for everything in the collection to the Harry Ransom Center with the exception of the one unpublished work.  The reality was that the Center was chosen because it has the technology and expertise to preserve the collection at the highest level and make it available to the global research community through digitization.

In closing, I want to thank everyone involved in the production of this exhibition, because it was truly a team effort that transformed the work that Ali, Emily and I did in Austin into what you see today.  Liz Hanes mounted all the artifacts.  Heidi Benedict printed all the images.  Megan Lessard and Chris Truszkowski created the Birss website.  Additional exhibition items were loaned by the Redwood Library in Newport, Professor Adam Braver, Professor Paola Prada, Jackie Katz, and Natasha Perez.  Translations were provided by Professor Lee Jackson and Angelina Ferrari of the Spanish Honors Society.  Dean Betsy Learned and Professor Adam Braver offered their support though out the entire project and of course, Bob Blais provided the means to make it happen.  It is the combined efforts of all these individuals that makes the creation of this exhibition such an exciting and enriching experience!  We hope you enjoy it!