Here are the rules of the game: the library is the cosmos, its books are the stars, and we, as their readers, are celestial observers. At a distance, with instruments and conditions that are limited, our gazes travel, intermingle, pause, hesitate, and continue their trajectories, unraveling the unknown or perhaps encountering new outlines amongst the pages. The challenge is to place ourselves amongst a certain number of books, discover relationships, and create groups of objects – constellations – that speak to one another. These are the structural metaphors of the digital exhibition Constellations: Reimagining Celestial Histories in the Early Americas at the John Carter Brown Library, as we present to the public nearly 90 objects from its collections.

At first glance, the exhibition appears to have as its central theme the history of astronomy in the Americas. Or perhaps, even before that, is it not a history of the relationship of communities throughout the Americas with the heavens? Or better still, a history of the American skies? Choosing any of these as a central question – among many other possibilities – would imply distinct and not necessarily compatible propositions. Accepting incompatibilities, failing to resolve these tensions, and refusing to offer a particular response to a single dominant query is the vision that inspires Constellations and the histories that are recounted through it.

Our constellations are unexpected groupings, unstable and changing objects that testify to the distinct meanings that the heavens revealed for the Americas, from the Americas, within the Americas. We invite you to contemplate these skies with us. 

To see events and news associated with this exhibition, make sure to visit our special landing page with additional information. Also, stay tuned for the updates we will be making to the display currently on view: five additional constellations, together with a digital immersive experience, will be accessible through a dedicated website that we will launch on November 30.

Learning to Navigate the Skies

Learning to read the skies for knowing one's place on the earth or in the Universe was an integral part of the culture of mariners who crossed the Atlantic back and forth, of writers who wanted to make sense of the relation between the Old and the New World, and of educational curricula of institutions ranging from grammar schools to universities, religious colleges, and military academies. The materials displayed in this constellation give witness to the variety of ways in which astronomical knowledge was taught and learned: navigational manuals, textbooks, treatises, dissertations, maps, or even prefatory material to books on history. Some of them were published in Europe, but found their way to the early Americas, while others were locally written, or built upon the lived experiences of their authors in the New World.

Prognostications in Print

The relationship between astronomical phenomena and time-reckoning is so prominent that it is almost unnecessary to reiterate it. Most calendars in the world are based on the periodic motions of the sun, the moon, or both; the date of religious festivals, particularly Christian ones, is as a rule connected to some celestial configuration; seasons and tides, the time to seed or to harvest, days of market or court, the time to sleep or to wake up -- astronomical rhythms invade human life in every scale, from the most minute, intimate affairs all the way up to momentous civic, religious, and political events. The desire to predict the future, to tame time, pervaded societies across the early Americas: from knowing the date of next year's Easter day to the coming solar eclipse, through the date of a notable planetary conjunction believed to interfere in human affairs or the birthday of an influential individual, this constellation suggests the many ways through which the heavens made the future of communities in the early Americas.

Instrumental Pursuits

Instruments for star gazing aroused awe, desire, curiosity, obsession, distrust and speculation. These fragile objects, represented in books, engaged the body, reason, memory and imagination; and they were also related with the creation of authority and strategies of legitimation in local and global contexts. Instruments were conditioned by local resources and practices, and colonial asymmetries. Astronomical practitioners living in the Americas had very conflicting attitudes towards instruments for navigation, timekeeping, geography, earthquake and meteorological predictions, as these objects were commonly linked to personal or national pride. This is not a story of the reception of European technology in the Americas, but a collage of conflicting attitudes toward instruments as found in periodicals, pamphlets, images and maps.

Writing Histories

Studying the heavens, counting time and writing history seem to be indissociable elements. However, connecting the periodic movement of celestial bodies with the passage of human experience implies a certain set of beliefs and practices that are not innate to all cultures. For the Europeans that came to the Americas from the end of the fifteenth century, the Christian calendar, which observed liturgical festivities within solar and lunar cycles, was not only a time keeping instrument but the basis of history itself: the time of Creation and of Salvation were the beginning and end of human action; so history could only be told according to the astrological and astronomical frameworks that supported the Christian calendar. Since Amerindian cultures did not share this mode of time telling, the great challenge of colonial intellectuals was to find meeting points between Indigenous and European modes of computing time and memory keeping. The division between history – related to the recording of objective happenings in agreement with astronomical time – and myth – related to collective symbolic narratives and to other forms of time computation – was created in missionary and scientific writing. For creole intellectuals, discovering the history of their nation meant recovering – or recreating – the “astronomical” knowledge of the Ancients.

Instruments of Conversion

The conversion of Indigenous peoples to Christianity was the ultimate ideological justification of the European invasion and colonization of the New World. Missionary activity in the early Americas not only shaped colonial societies and territories in every conceivable way, but was also directly linked to a process of world-historical importance such as the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. In their day-to-day work, Christian missionaries across the Americas resorted to their privileged knowledge of Indigenous languages and frequently employed astronomical references in order to access Indigenous people's belief systems, as some of the materials displayed in this constellation demonstrate. Conversion was not limited, however, to gaining new souls for the Christian faith, but it also meant policing the behavior and beliefs of large populations of European ancestry, who were already among the faithful. For this end, preachers and religious authors made use of remarkable celestial phenomena to inspire reverence, or to claim that the stars revealed some kind of special divine protection for the Americas.

Credits

Digitization of items for this exhibition has been generously supported by the R. David Parsons Fund for Digital Exploration. Programming support was received from Robert N. Gordon (in memoriam) and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.  

Curators: Nydia Pineda (University of California, San Diego) and Thomás Haddad (Universidade de São Paulo)
Specialist Consultants:
Laura Bland (University of Houston) - Seventeenth century comet tracts
Guillaume Candela (Center for the Study of the Early Modern World, Brown University) - Tupí-Guaraní language materials
Ana Díaz (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) - Nahuatl language materials
Virginia Iommi (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile) - Celestial images
Antonio Neme Castillo (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) - Data visualization and analysis
Andrés Vélez Posada (Universidad EAFIT, Colombia) - Early modern cosmography

Artistic Contributor and Consultant:
Ale de la Puente (Sistema Nacional de Creadores, México)

Video Production:
Sabrina Almandoz
Hugo Magaña
Lalo Santoyo

Executive Production:
The John Carter Brown Library Staff