Anatomy of an Exhibition
Molly Schwartzburg, Curator of British and American Literature at the Ransom Center, curated the current exhibition On the Road with the Beats. She gives a behind-the-scenes look at some of the items in the exhibition and the challenges she faced in organizing and choosing items for the show.
Where do you start when you're assigned the task of curating an exhibition that covers so many different collections?
First I made a list of collections I thought might have Beat-related material: manuscripts, books, visual arts, sound recordings, periodicals, photography, personal effects. After going through all the databases and other finding aids, I drew on the collective unwritten knowledge throughout the building. I asked every curator, various catalogers, and the paging staff for recommendations. They were very patient as I grilled them about anything they might think of having to do with not just the Beats, but the 1940s, 1950s, counterculture movements, pop art and Andy Warhol, abstract expressionist art, the New York school, jazz, vagrancy, car culture, teen rebellion, and so on. In the end, I had more information than I ever expected: for example, I had over 50 manuscript collections to go through, and in the end, 23 of those manuscript collections are represented by at least one object in the exhibition.
How did you organize the exhibition?
I started by knowing what I didn't want to do: I didn't want to organize the exhibition around people. There were two reasons for this. First, there's a sort of "cult of personality" in the popular culture of the Beats. I've always been interested in how groups of people interact and learn from each other, and archives are uniquely able to capture interactions and influences. Second, I knew that our holdings were inconsistent. We have many materials on the poet Gregory Corso since we have his papers, and 600 pages worth of letters written by Allen Ginsberg, but we have only a handful of manuscripts written by Jack Kerouac, and not a single photograph of Kerouac. I was concerned that the exhibition might feel asymmetrical.
One of the first archives I looked into was that of Paul Bowles, who wasn't himself a "Beat." I knew that William S. Burroughs had spent time with Bowles in Tangier, where Bowles lived, and discovered some wonderful correspondence and photographs, including a letter from Bowles to his parents complaining that Tangier had become overrun with beatniks in the early sixties. I thought the exhibition should have a Tangier section and then realized an entire exhibition could be structured around cities. So I put that concept in the back of my mind. And then, as I began intensively searching through the collections, I kept coming across material that confirmed how important place was to the Beats—so much, and such a variety of material that seemed specific to a certain place, that I realized this was the way to go.
Geography and travel really seem to go hand-in-hand in this exhibition.
The theme of the exhibition is, on one hand, of geography and cities in a very literal way, but on the other hand, it's also about travel and motion and change and innovation and discovery in a more symbolic sense. What I mean is that the Beats were interested generally in getting from one place to another, both in cars and boats and in their writing. They were interested in being an avant-garde in the literal sense of the term, a forward group forging ahead into unknown territory in advance of everybody else. They wanted to leave behind conventions of society, literature, and even consciousness. The geographic structure of the exhibition gives this sense of being pioneers in several ways.
What are some challenges you face when organizing an exhibition?
The most important limiting factor is simply the size of an exhibition case. How many items fit inside of a case, how many cases can fit comfortably inside the gallery? It's almost like thinking in terms of word counts for magazine articles. You end up making really substantive decisions based on the size of your exhibition case. I knew I had 16 cases. It's good to have limits, and one of the most important lessons I've learned is how important it is not to include everything you want. When you have hundreds of rich, long letters by Allen Ginsberg to choose from, you are thankful for limits.
Another limiting factor is the collections themselves. One of the goals of our exhibitions is to open the doors to the Ransom Center's holdings. This exhibition creates the Ransom Center's Beat generation, the version of the movement that is produced by the objects in this building. It's a wonderful limiting factor because it means we get to create something that could never be replicated anywhere else.
What point of view do you, as a curator, want to communicate with this exhibition?
When I first started working on the exhibition, I realized there were two important points that had to be communicated. One was that the Beats were messy, and their lives were complicated and inelegant. In the early years, many of them were living day to day, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. The exhibition had to carry across the reality of how they lived and worked, not just the beauty of the literary artifacts that they created. Mats and frames necessarily transform objects, and I was concerned about "elevating" the Beats inappropriately. Our wonderful paper conservator offered to clean a lot of the books and manuscripts, and in many cases I said, "No, let's leave it as is," because the condition of certain objects tells us a lot about the individuals who created them.
I also wanted the exhibition to capture the almost frantic energy of the Beats. There's a desperation to the Beats. Sometimes it's a positive energy, and sometimes it's sort of distressing or distressed. This sense of energy is itself part of the exhibition's broader theme of movement, and early on I discovered that I felt strongly that the exhibition should not be static, should not contain only objects, but things that move, that feel somehow alive.
We're doing this in various ways in the exhibition. The most important is sound recordings. Visitors can listen to various Beats talk about their lives and listen to them read their texts. So much of being a Beat was being a performer, especially Allen Ginsberg, but also Kerouac, quite famously. Gregory Corso was a very funny entertainer, apparently, when he read his poems. We'll also have a digital facsimile of one of the Ransom Center's treasures, a notebook that Kerouac kept in the late 1940s. Visitors will be able to "turn the pages" in the gallery, just as Kerouac might have as he reviewed the notes it contains for On the Road.
From the very beginning to the end, I focused on making sure the exhibition was not too stable. I felt it should be a little unstable, a little messy, a little chaotic. Because if you make the Beats too beautiful, you're missing the point.