“Crossing Borders” Showcases Student Curatorial Talents

On view again this fall after shutting down due to COVID-19, the exhibit grew out of a fall 2019 writing seminar which explored geographic, linguistic, social, and racial border crossing through literature.

In addition to assigning a final paper for her fall 2019 writing seminar Crossing Borders, Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sarah Wilma Watson presented her students with an arguably even more daunting task: designing, organizing, and curating an exhibit that would showcase some of what they’d learned that semester. The fruit of their labors, now back (following a coronavirus-necessitated break) on view in Lutnick Library’s Rebecca and Rick White Gallery, showcases their considerable curatorial talents and shines a light on Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections’ world-class  materials relating to the 19th-century abolitionist movement. 

Among the most affecting items included in the Crossing Borders: From Slavery to Abolition, 1670-1865 exhibit are the 1688 Germantown Protest, which Head of Quaker & Special Collections Sarah Horowitz describes as “the first written [petition] against slavery in the Americas”; early editions of booksby several formerly enslaved people, including the acclaimed poet Phillis Wheatley; and deck plans for a ship of the type that would have navigated the Middle Passage en route to West Africa. 

Rachel Schiffer ’23, one of the student curators, found herself especially taken aback by the content of several 19th-century children’s books she dug up while conducting research for the exhibit. Some, she says, were “surprisingly racist and violent, even though they were aimed at children.” 

Challenging prescribed perspectives on the past seems to have been a main objective of the writing seminar from which the exhibit takes its name. Utilizing texts as diverse as Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Nella Larsen’s Passing, and the collaboratively-authored Refugee Tales, it explored the motif of border-crossing as it is presented in texts from a range of countries as well as time periods, and tackled issues like race and social class as a matter of course. 

Though the class was not strictly about the history of slavery and abolitionism in the United States, the students decided to make it the centerpiece of their exhibit because they found a stunning wealth of material on the subject in Quaker & Special Collections.

“Slavery is an important aspect of United States history, and something the country is still grappling with,” says Horowitz of the creative decision to to center narratives of race-based subjugation. “The effects of slavery, the slave trade, and colonialism are still felt in the world today. If we do not understand what has happened in the past, we will not be able to understand and grapple with the effects of these institutions in the present.” 

In particular, Oroonoko, an influential 1688 novella about an African prince who is captured and sold to British colonists in Suriname, served as what Watson calls “an entry point” into the process of researching the transatlantic slave trade and its far-reaching effects. (The exhibit includes an early edition of Oroonoko, on loan from the University of Pennsylvania). 

First, students had the opportunity to examine, photograph, and analyze a wide variety of documents, both print and manuscript, related to transatlantic travel, slavery, and abolition held in Haverford’s Special Collections,” says Watson of this process. “Next, students chose two items, worked with those items outside of class, and prepared concise and engaging labels aimed at a general audience. After peer editing, these labels formed the core text of the exhibit.” 

In a testament to the Crossing Borders students’ commitment to acknowledging and addressing hard truths, the exhibit does not shy away from depicting the dark side of the Quaker abolitionist movement. The label for the Germantown Protest, for example, is careful to note that when the document was presented to Quaker elders based in Philadelphia, they declined to endorse it;  nearly 100 more years would pass before the Quaker establishment would officially take a stance against slavery, in 1776. 

“Quaker involvement in slavery and abolition is far more complicated than is sometimes portrayed,” says Horowitz. “While many Quakers fought for the abolition of slavery, they did not necessarily see African Americans as equals.”

Schiffer echoes this statement. “While many of the [documents selected for inclusion in the exhibit] were actively advocating for abolition,” she says, “they also displayed a lot of racism, stereotypes, and often contributed to a narrative focused on ‘white saviors,’ rather than the actual enslaved people they claimed to advocate for.”

In light of such observations, student curators were acutely conscious of the need to publicly recognize the nuances of Quaker doctrine with regard to abolitionism. Grayson Toole ’23, the author of the final label in the exhibit (“The Politics of the Archive”), notes that the exhibit was designed to include “many narratives and perspectives” and to raise awareness of “how structures of power have shaped the visibility and availability of historical voices.” To this end, Toole, Schiffer, and their 10 classmates were careful to use terms such as “enslaved person” and “captive” rather than “slave” in order to, as Toole’s label says, “separate the individual from their state of oppression.”

Describing the configuration of the exhibit, which will be on display through July 31, Schiffer notes, “We wanted to be aware of the ways in which the placement of the items would affect the narrative we were telling, how they would move visitors around the space, and what symbolic effects the placement would have.” 

In an admission of solidarity with modern movements like #BlackLivesMatter, the label, authored by Toole and entitled “The Politics of Archives,” reads, “By acknowledging the struggle within our documents, we recognize the trans-generational trauma and inter-generational opportunity and disadvantages still present today.” 

At an opening reception held on March 2, the student curators had a chance to show students, faculty, and staff around the exhibit. One of the students in attendance was Schiffer’s friend Alex Rebhun ’23, who found his attention captured by the Germantown Protest for its relevance to his “Quakers, War, and Slavery” class. 

“It’s such an important document,” says Rebhun, adding, “To see such a historic work in a small exhibit where you can get right up close to it was a joy.” 

The exhibit and the library shut down in March due to COVID-19, but is reopening to students, staff, and faculty on Sept. 8. Crossing Borders: From Slavery to Abolition, 1670-1865 will now be on view until the end of September. Those not on campus can view a digital version of the exhibit

Photos by Patrick Montero and Holden Blanco ’17.