Exploring the faces of history

The Elmer L. Andersen Library features the exhibit “Blackface(s) In Film”

by Sara Nicole Miller

Bhutan is more than just a tiny mountainous country nestled in the Himalayas.

It is also the title of the world’s largest book, weighing over 130 pounds with images that are five feet tall. From time to time, tourists come in to have their picture taken next to the book, seated amidst the catacombs of curiosities in the Andersen Library’s Special Collections and Rare Books Department.

Karla Y. Davis, curator of the Givens Collection of African-American Literature inside Special Collections, gets paid to sift through and store these peculiar artifacts of years past and present. Although she loves her career among cultural relics, she admits that the treasures of her department are largely unknown to the University community.

So Davis decided to do what any good curator would do: she created an exhibit.

“I want to show people the diversity of the collection,” Davis said.

“Blackface(s) in Film” is the most recent showcasing of the Special Collections and Rare Books Department’s – particularly of the Givens Collection – robust menagerie of objects.

Blackface(s) In Film
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, through February 28th
WHERE: Andersen Library, Room Atrium Gallery, West Bank

“The use of the word ‘blackface’ in the title of the exhibit is provocative, and that was intentional,” Davis explained in an e-mail. “The word usually conjures up a certain image, and that image never fails to provoke a reaction.”

However, the exhibit isn’t exactly devoted to all things minstrel. The title, quite literally, expresses homage to the various African-American film stars, directors, authors and screenwriters.

Inside the exhibit, wall hangings display vintage movie posters of “Shaft” and “Mo’ Better Blues,” while glass cases house original screenplays, signed biographies and other related items. Iconic images of Oprah, Spike Lee and the lovely Dorothy Dandridge hang from the ceiling in large panels.

“Representations of African-Americans in pop culture have evolved. For example, we’re no longer restricted to playing maids or chauffeurs,” Davis said. “But, I think we are all still confronted with stereotypes.”

The Givens Collection started as a private book collection in New York City. Collector Richard Lee Hoffman, whose assortment swelled as a result of frequent trips to auctions and antique shops, sold it to the University in 1985, with Archie Givens Sr. – the first African-American millionaire in Minnesota – assisting in the purchase.

The Givens Collection is mostly first editions and first printings. Quite a few are signed. The collection is heavy in Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement material, as well as a pronounced theater collection.

“Blackface(s) in Film” displays only a smidgen of the artifacts available in Special Collections and Rare Books. It is home to eight different archival units, including the YMCA and University archives. Last year, they even acquired the official archives for the Log Cabin Republicans.

It has the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia in the world, and an internationally known GLBT collection, called the Tretter Collection, with a hearty sampling of GLBT paraphernalia – everything from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian phallic statuette to swizzle sticks and lunch pails.

And when it comes to storing the collections, they don’t mess around. They have two climate-controlled caverns underneath the building for holding all their treasures.

While the rest of the collections may someday get the opportunity to shine in their own exhibits, for now, it’s time for “Blackface(s)” to step into the spotlight. And for once, that’s not such a bad thing.