For a solid three years, COVID-19 draped itself across humanity like a weighted blanket. When it wasn’t swaddling people in illness, it was feeding on serotonin and inducing anxiety, making everyone loath to go anywhere—assuming they weren’t already under quarantine.
At the pandemic’s peak, something as innocuous as going out for groceries felt like a perilous journey. However, even after vaccines were readily available to most Americans, the idea of taking a trip was laughable. The dramatic impact COVID-19 had on when and why people left their homes inspired Jessica Lacher-Feldman, the exhibits and special collections manager in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation (RBSCP) at the University of Rochester.
“It made me think a lot about what ‘travel’ means,” says Lacher-Feldman reflecting on the pandemic, “and all the different ways it’s represented in our collections. It can mean so much more than going on a vacation.”
With the help of many guest curators and interns, including students, Lacher-Feldman turned her thoughts into Over the Rainbow & Around the World: Real & Imagined Journeys.
On display in RBSCP until December 22, 2023, the exhibit uses RBSCP’s collections to offer a multidimensional view of travel. Lacher-Feldman aimed to create an evocative experience through various examples of why people go somewhere else in the world or their minds. “I wanted to take the viewer back and forth between travels we choose versus travel that must be done due to circumstances out of our control,” she says. “It’s a means of reflecting on our memories and how travel can be an expression of who we are and the lives we lead.”
You are now free to roam about the library
Although we typically think of travel as going from Point A to Point B, there is no “right” way to explore Over the Rainbow & Around the World. Visitors to the exhibits are encouraged to go in any direction; however, they will all start in the Land of Oz.
The cases that line RBSCP’s entryway introduce the exhibit through the lens of The Wizard of Oz. Featuring the first 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum, part of a gift from David Perlman and his wife, Marjorie, a member of the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries, and that included about 145 Oz-related books, the cases display connections between the real and imagined world. For example, one case highlights Aleksandr Volkov’s The Magician of Emerald City, an adaptation created to the storytelling model for Soviet children, “shifting the story’s focus towards collective rather than individual achievements.”
Beyond the yellow brick road, travelers can roam among cases focusing on conveyances and travel guides, the Underground Railroad, the “allure of Egypt,” and the 1904 book cover for On a Lark to the Planets, the inspiration for the exhibit’s design.
Some of the most compelling perspectives and materials are found outside the William Henry Seward Room. Spread across six cases, the personal stories of real people present travel as life-changing, life-sustaining, and life-endangering experiences.
In one case, viewers will find first editions of works from renowned Black novelist Richard Wright, for whom travel was a one-way ticket. Wright, who struggled with the effects of poverty and racism in the US, went to Paris for a three-month residency and decided to make it his permanent home after feeling seen as a social equal for the first time. Another case revisits the days of the “traveling salesmen,” told through the story of William Feinbloom, founder of the Champion Knitwear Company.
RBSCP’s collection also holds materials associated with several film-worthy tales, such as the first volume of A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, an important example of writing around early exploration from Captain James Cook. And through the story of Helene Sterniuk, the Ukrainian Rochester Collection gives viewers a sense of how harrowing it was for Ukrainians to emigrate after World War II. Finally, the Joan V. Bondurant Papers show some travelers are spies.
Two floors above RBSCP, the Rossell Hope Robbins Library takes visitors to Italy.
A student exhibit produced in collaboration with Robbins Library, RBSCP (Lacher-Feldman), and Learning Initiatives at the River Campus Libraries, The Centennials in Poppi showcases Dante-related research and projects created as part of a summer abroad program at Biblioteca Rilliana in Poppi, Italy. For example, Catherine Giugno ʼ23 (T5) examined Storia Naturale degli Uccelli, a catalog of captivating birds written in the 18th century by Italian ornithologist Saveria Manetti and illustrated by engravers Lorenzo Lorenzi and Violante Vanni. Giugno supplemented this work with her own catalog of birds from the Rochester-area bird sanctuary Wild Wings. As another example, Sophia Samantaroy ʼ24 tracks the ownership of the Psalterium Arabum et Syricum, a cross-cultural prayer book, in her project “Across Tuscany and through Time.”
On its own, studying abroad can take a student to the edge of their comfort zone. Working on this exhibit did more of the same by requiring students to think critically about ideas and objects they never before considered or seen.
“It’s a fantastic exhibition of how we can connect our collections—and those from other institutions—with student experiences,” says Anna Siebach-Larsen, director of Robbins Library and the Koller-Collins Center for English Studies. “They’re showcasing outstanding work. So, it’s a powerful example of what we can do when we think outside the box as educators and what our students can achieve when we give them some guidelines and let them run.”
Going to the first floor of Rush Rhees Library, into the Roger B. Friedlander Lobby, another exhibit complements Over the Rainbow & Around the World. This one is interactive.
Memories of Home acknowledges that the River Campus is a diverse community from all over the world. Lacher-Feldman explains the exhibit is “a way to get students to think about their own experiences and what ‘home’ means to them.” But it’s a concept anyone can relate to.
Share what “home” means to you with @rclspecialcollections on Instagram to be part of the #URAroundTheWorld exhibit. ∎