Never Stop Searching: Insight into Archival Research

by Samantha Perlman 17C
Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

After completing the final draft of my history honors thesis this week, I have a newfound admiration of academia. Historians extensively research their topics before even attempting to write monographs. I found myself becoming a historian this past semester as an Undergraduate Fellow at the Fox Center. Immersing myself in the Emory University Archives in the Stuart A. Rose Library, I strived to translate my research questions into a finished product.


At first, it was extremely difficult for me to get my bearings on archival research. I was fortunate that the Rose Library created extensive finding aids but I had no idea how to approach my research questions. My history honors thesis is on the history of integration at Emory University from 1969-1989. Looking back to those early days in September, I did not know that I would lock into that particular twenty-year period. All I knew was that I had an interest in racial integration at Emory and that I wanted to chart the success of this initiative through the Office of Admission’s black recruitment and enrollment data. This was probably much easier in theory than in practice. One thing I learned from my research was not to search for something too specific in the archive; otherwise, I would have missed all the nuances of the documents and the larger story.  As I sifted through thousands of papers, I began to create broad themes to guide my research and write down unfamiliar terms, events or people that I discovered. Often, it was this fluidity of searching, in which I was open to interacting with the documents, that I found my most pertinent material.

I remember when I came across my first major document: The President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities (PCSM) 1981 Report. President Laney established the PCSM in 1979, one year following his inauguration at Emory. The purpose of the PCSM was to study minority recruitment across the university and develop recommendations for how the administration could better serve minority students, staff and faculty. My 1981 document was the initial two-year study the PCSM conducted. The Report contained reflections from minority students and faculty as well as a crucial chart in which the PCSM compared Emory College black recruitment statistics to its peer institutions. Emory’s peer universities included Duke, Rice, Tulane and Vanderbilt. The 1979 data was shocking and crucial to the narrative arc of my thesis; I learned that Emory College Admissions ranked below all its peers in the percentage of black applicants who were accepted (31%) although they had one of the highest overall acceptance rates (63.7%). Such data indicated to me that the Office of Admission in 1979 had clear issues with black recruitment. I developed this insight from one chart in a document!

Moments like the one above, truly transformed the rigorous thesis process into an exciting journey. Some days, it was difficult to maintain my motivation. However, writing my undergraduate honors thesis remains the most exhilarating and meaningful academic experience of my college career. In many ways, I have to thank the amazing community at the Fox Center for this positive experience. I wrote my entire thesis at our Fellow office. Working in the Center constantly reminded me the importance of academic scholarship. I am so grateful to be a part of such a talented group of scholars!



From the Amazon to North Decatur Road

by Hugh McGlade 17C
Humanities Honors Fellow

Photo credits: Hugh McGlade


We stayed at a floating hotel, a six-room structure surrounded by flooded Amazonian rainforest. When boats went by, the building bobbed with the wake. Urbanity—and for that matter, any landscape I had ever known—seemed very distant. The closest city was two hours by boat. Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, was a plane ride away.


It was May of 2016, and I was on a research trip to Brazil. I had spent the past week in government archives in Rio de Janeiro, thumbing through documents for my thesis. I was scheduled to spend another week doing the same. The foray into the rainforest was a touristy get-away—a three day adventure to a part of Brazil that I knew nothing about.

In my first hours in the Amazon, I was a spectator in awe of the vastness of the sky, the colors of the birds, the density of the jungle, the noises of the monkeys. But I quickly normalized those things. They remained amazing, but not all consuming. Increasingly, people drew my attention. The politics of community policing against poaching; the agriculture practices of harvesting acai; the economic impact of eco-tourism. I got only small glimpses into those topics, through conversations and observations. But they stuck with me, and I kept thinking to myself, “Someone needs to write a history of this place.”


Soon I returned to Rio and headed to the archives. As I read about my research topic (a U.S.-Brazilian hunger alleviation program in the 1940s), I paid more attention to the regular mentions of the Amazon. In fact, I realized that I had been privileging documents about the urban initiatives of the program, merely because I felt comfortable with references to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The Amazon, and its food, its soil, its landscape, was now real to me, and it changed the way I imagined history.

But it was not until I came to the Fox Center this spring that I gave serious attention to exploring the connections between our material realities and our humanistic inquiries. In a practical yet critical sense, I have a desk, bookshelves, and a quiet environment, the combination of which has allowed me to think, read, and write in a more attentive way than ever before. And in an intellectual sense, the community has pushed me to think about how the humanities—in their many disciplines and topics—relate to one another and to the world. For this reason, the weekly lunches and off-hand conversations have been not a distraction from research but rather a catalyst for it. I have been inspired by how people think, and by how ostensibly unrelated topics related to my work. Now all I need to do is get back to the Amazon as a researcher and not a tourist.

A Journey to Decipher Rubens’ Political Allegory

Koposova-1                Union of Earth and Water                                          Hermitage Museum

by Ekaterina Koposova 17C
Humanities Honors Fellow

My research on the Union of Earth and Water began last spring in Dr. Melion’s seminar on Peter Paul Rubens. What started as an interpretation of a single painting grew to include many works by Rubens that deal with his vision of peace and its development in his art. My research on the Union of Earth and Water involves several levels of analysis that combine to yield a comprehensive reading of this work. The peace images that Rubens created express the vision of a political utopia by means of divine allegory. Following Terence’s apothem “sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus,” Rubens created images of the union of the three gods that are meant to represent the joy and bounty that a peace in Europe would bring. Thus, these images prove to be a tantalizing mix of abstract, philosophical ideas founded on an intimate knowledge of Greek and Roman myths, literature, and art while at the same time having a very practical political purpose and origin. The Union of Earth and Water, however, adds to this agenda another very well-known artistic tradition — the water deities. Rubens advocates a compelling political cause with sumptuous images that rely on an enormous wealth of knowledge both of the art of Antiquity and his own era. The John Howett Fellowship has given me the chance to trace both the divine allegories relevant to my study and the visual culture of river gods as political emblems to expand and inform my research.


                                                                   The Tiber – Louvre Museum                      photo by Ekaterina

One of the most important discoveries I have made during my travels is that river gods in their role as political symbols are not unique to the Netherlands nor are they confined to the realm of pageant decorations and paintings. In fact, as my visit to the Louvre made abundantly clear, the imagery of river gods (as well as their importance for politics) originated in Antiquity. Louvre’s Tiber is a monumental Roman sculptural group consisting of a river god with a cornucopia and an oar (attributes water deities of Rubens’ times also carry) by whose side Romulus and Remus play near their adopted wolf-mother. Rubens has a painting named after the legendary founders of Rome that uses the same motif of two children nursed by a she-wolf under the protection of a river god. Beyond antique sculpture, I have seen river gods appear on façades of buildings (in France, Belgium, and Austria), fountains (Medici Fountain, Paris), triumphant arches (Porte Saint Denis, Paris), and decorations of royal apartments (Louvre, Paris). Seeing this profusion of river gods in a variety of media (ephemeral architecture, sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, painting) across time (from Antiquity on to early eighteenth century) and countries (likely across Europe) influenced my analysis of the Union of Earth and Water. In creating the Union of Earth and Water, though its message was expressed allegorically, Rubens by no means intended to be cryptic. On the contrary, much as he wrote to Justus Sustermans about The Horrors of War, he probably expected the Union of Earth and Water to convey his meaning plainly, at least on a political level. To add explicitly his own plea for the end of the Scheldt blockade to numerous others, many of which had come in the form of pageant decorations, Rubens drew on a well-known and widespread language of political allegory and symbolism. Not only would it have been understood by learned men of the Netherlands — Rubens’ metaphor was made to speak clearly to educated men across Europe.

Rubens’ own art is abundant in river gods, whose importance for his work should not be underestimated. The artist’s nuanced understanding of these deities’ importance to the political imagery led him to incorporate water gods in many of his works. Some of these, like his portrait of the Duke of Buckingham or Ferdinand of Hungary meeting with Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Spain at Nördlingen feature river gods as an allegorical backdrop to important political players. This is also the case in the Medici cycle, of which even the oil sketches feature river gods (Arrival of Marie de Medici at Marseille and the Exchange of Princesses). These images have been crucial for me to see because they make clear the connection that existed in Rubens’ mind between persons capable of influencing politics and water deities.

Beyond its political meaning, connected to river gods and the precarious situation of Southern Netherlands, the Union of Earth and Water is an image of peace, which has a place among other peace allegories created by Rubens. These evolved from three main elements — the three gods of Terence’s apothem — that exist both separately and in their symbiotic form of peace in Rubens’ art. Paintings that focus on these gods separately help determine the elements that can be used to identify the presence of these gods on canvases where they are evoked simultaneously and implicitly (the Union of Earth and Water is an important instance of this). Rubens’ paintings of Bacchus and his followers, notwithstanding their diversity, are characterized by three crucial elements: grapes, vine leaves, and felines to which may be added two more — wine and satyrs. In any combination, these elements, when they migrate from Bacchic canvases to other works, must alert the viewer to the Bacchic presence. Seeing Satyr’s Head, Drunken Silenus, Minerva Defends Peace from Mars, and the Feast of Venus has further convinced me of this. Consequently, I feel more certain than ever that the tiger, grapes, and vine leaves in the Union of Earth and Water (not to mention the satyr in the sketch for the painting) are not coincidental occurrences but are meant to alert the viewer to the presence of the wine god. Rubens also created many paintings devoted only to Venus. Seeing the sketch The Birth of Venus in Brussels was vitally important because it showed Venus with no other main gods. Being the scene of her birth, this sketch is focused on what is quintessentially characteristic of Venus: nudity, golden hair, cupids, pearls, and a connection to the sea. The latter is very important considering the oceanic themes of the Union of Earth and Water and that it lays such strong emphasis on Venus’ birth from the sea, which is rarely emphasized so strongly. All the elements, except the blond hair, that in this sketch belong to Venus and no other god, also characterize Ceres in the Union of Earth and Water. Establishing the composite identities of gods in Rubens’ allegories of peace necessitates a close study of his works that treat these gods in isolation.

Minerva Defending Peace from Mars and Feast of Venus are supreme examples of two kinds of Rubens’ peace imagery, which is a vital point of comparison for the Union of Earth and Water. Minerva Defending Peace from Mars is openly political. (In this it is similar to the even more dramatic Horrors of War.) Peace and War divide this canvas, underlining an intimate connection between peace and its enemy. This suggests that Rubens’ peace images, even when devoid of any signs of conflict, actually exist in unspoken opposition to it. Minerva Defending Peace from Mars has elements of Terence’s divine trio: grapes and satyrs speak of Bacchic presence, the abundant fruit and its harvest recall Ceres. Peace herself is as though a personification of Venus — what else may be suggested by her golden hair, nudity, pearl earring, and red drapery? Nevertheless, her suckling of an infant recalls images of Tellus — another Roman earth goddess, which adds more complexity to her identity. This is very similar to the Union of Earth and Water, where Ceres has attributes of Venus and where the Bacchic presence is implied as the last component of peace.


Feast of Venus, 1636-38

The Feast of Venus is a more implicit image of peace, which does not refer to war in any other way than by being such an absolute antithesis to it. This celebration of Venus also features elements — satyrs and grapes, abundant fruits and cornucopia, lovemaking and cupids — of Bacchus, Ceres, and Venus, the three gods of peace. Moreover, the painting features a statue of each god. It is an allegory of peace enacted by the living beings and conditioned by the gods, whose statues overlook the worship of Venus — the ultimate expression of peace. Similarly to the Feast of Venus, the Union of Earth and Water is an enactment of peace because it depicts the end of the blockade of the Scheldt, which only would have been assured by the end of war. In Rubens’ lifetime, however, this was not to be. This is why, perhaps, that in creating the Union of Earth and Water, the artist thought back to his early image of Adam and Eve — a moment of bliss subverted by the reality of the fall. Seeing Adam and Eve further convinced me of this.

The John Howett Fellowship allowed me to trace three most important parts of my argument concerning the Union of Earth and Water. I discovered that water deities, particularly river gods, were a recognizable metaphor of Rubens’ time, one that he must have used to make the meaning of the Union of Earth and Water clear. The images of Bacchus and Venus, apart and as elements of his vision of peace, are characterized by identifiable elements that mark their presence for the viewer, whether the gods themselves are portrayed or not. Using these elements, Rubens builds sophisticated allegories that depend on a shared symbolic meaning. Incorporating these discoveries into my analysis and researching further the new possibilities that they had put before me has had a powerful (and highly beneficial) impact on my work.

Philosophy and Intellectual Home

by Lamija Grbic’ 17C
Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

With the month of February coming to a close, I find myself looking ahead with anticipation on my last two months at Emory as well as reflecting on the past three and a half years as an undergraduate. It has been two months since I was invited to join the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry as an undergraduate fellow. This was an invitation I did not anticipate to receive, but I am truly grateful that I did receive it; my experience with the Center has provided me with a sense of intellectual home on campus and a community of support as I have explored the thrills and challenges of composing an extended piece of writing in philosophy.

I came to philosophy with a desire to ask questions about myself and our society—our knowledge, politics and relationships to nature and to each other—in ways which deconstruct these concepts and bring them out of our day-to-day experiences and into a realm of critical engagement. In this realm, we can investigate the functioning of such concepts—freedom, for instance—and trace its intellectual, political and social history. We can temporarily “suspend” (in the tradition of the phenomenologists) our concern about whether such concepts are “correct” or “what we should believe” and instead ask ourselves about what such concepts do for us. What is at stake in believing one thing and not another?

For me, the complementary process in this equation has always been to return to our day-to-day lives with a renewed understanding of the ideas we typically take for granted, or at the very least some excitement and willingness to engage with other aspects of our lives using a critical lens. My love of philosophy stems from my belief that there is always something more than meets the eye about the ways we organize our engagement with the world and that there is always room for mystery and wonder in discovering a previously overlooked aspect of our lives.

If all of this sounds a bit abstract (as philosophers tend to sound), I believe this might have less to do with the ostensible dichotomy between theory and practice and more with how we understand (indeed, theorize) philosophy itself. The notion that philosophy should be grounded in or speak to our day-to-day lives is often forgotten, not because this principle is foreign to philosophy but because we tend to view philosophy as an aim in itself rather than as one (of many) ways to approach life. Philosophy has helped me approach my own experiences in a critical way and has inculcated a sense of patient wonder that I have brought with me to multiple aspects of my life, including my academics, activism and work life.

It was this belief in the power of philosophy as a problem-solving approach that lead me to my thesis topic; in light of heightened Islamophobia in some western countries, I decided to examine representations of Muslim women in the United States and France. I wanted to investigate what types of discourse are being used to talk about Muslim women—specifically hijabi women, or women who wear the hijab. My findings have revealed that othering discourse arises not merely from openly Islamophobic factions motivated by hate, but by liberal-minded individuals and some feminists. Muslim hijabi women are deemed “oppressed” if they wear the hijab; should these women declare that wearing the hijab is their choice, they are deemed internally “oppressed” or contributing to their own gender oppression. The hijab as an object thus becomes infused with highly politicized meanings concerning what freedom is and more specifically what freedom looks like. Throughout the course of my project, I have attempted to grapple with how such characterizations of Muslim hijabi women arise as well as their effects on hijabi women as political subjects. Whose words count as truth if we systematically discount the perspectives of hijabi women as the voices of those who are oppressed by their religion and therefore incapable of making choices in their own lives?

In order to address some of these questions, I have drawn upon several philosophical disciplines, most notably psychoanalysis and phenomenology. Psychoanalysis seeks to map out the workings of the mind—and most importantly, the subconscious—while phenomenology (mentioned above) is concerned with studying how the world presents itself to our limited gazes, understanding that objects arise in our consciousness not in the way that they “are” in the world.  Rather, our perception of objects is mediated by our own positionalities in the world.  Through the course of my project, I have drawn upon feminist psychoanalysts such as Drucilla Cornell and contemporary women working in phenomenology, including Sara Al-Saji and Sara Ahmed. Having gathered these perspectives, I am currently working on developing an iteration of feminist solidarity, given the differences in the experiences of women from different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds as well as the history of western imperialism propagated against Muslim peoples. Overall, I hope to demonstrate the far-reaching nature of these colonial discourses, and to argue against any attempts by western and/or white feminists to define the experiences of Muslim hijabi women.

Researching, writing and thinking about these issues has been difficult, not only because of the challenging nature of writing in philosophy, but because this project has forced me to grapple with questions of power, audience, purpose and the extent of my own personal involvement with these questions. In sum, the experience of writing my thesis has been fraught with questions about what is at stake in this project and perhaps other projects in philosophy that I would like to pursue in the future. The Fox Center has been helpful in grounding (both intellectually and literally) my thoughts by providing me with a space in which I can organize my research materials and discuss issues such as academic responsibility in the current political climate with others. The weekly Fellows’ lunches have been especially rewarding as they have allowed me to learn about the research of graduate fellows in the Center and helped me imagine what it might be like to pursue philosophy at the graduate level.

My most formative experiences over the past three and a half years have occurred in community with others. Whether this has involved being mentored by graduate students or giving back through service and peer tutoring, my Emory experience has been largely defined by the intellectual homes I have found here.  As I undertake the personal and academic challenge of completing an honors thesis in philosophy, I am truly grateful to the Fox Center for serving as another home for me here at Emory.

Extraterrestrial Translations and Linguistic Abductions: A Shedding of Invisibility

by Jason Ehrenzeller, 17C
Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow







Jason (l) with Carlos Gámez Pérez


The epiphany came in a South Florida café sitting next to Carlos Gámez Pérez. The author of “Abducciones en la que no es y nunca fue tu ciudad,” which I am translating for my honors thesis, graciously agreed to meet for an interview right before he would return to Spain. While speaking about his childhood in Barcelona, Carlos used the phrase, “something that would forever change my life,”[1] and it was if everything froze right there in the subtropics. I understood this very moment was changing my life; it was the final assurance I needed that literary translation was the future I desired. Even after studying under and attending lectures by famous poets and writers as an Emory undergraduate, nothing had brought me as close to the crux of creation as translation.

A few months prior, I had discovered my proclivity for this interdisciplinary trade that invoked all of my favorite intellectual outlets— literature, modern language, creative writing, and politics— in Professor Lisa Dillman’s course on literary translation. Translation immediately captivated my interest because of its potential for social healing via broadening perspectives and through its capability to forge connections between different cultures. Having just returned from two consecutive study abroad programs in Argentina and Spain and preparing to embark on a trip to serve the Jewish community in Cuba, I could not have begun studying this discipline at a more opportune moment. Through Translation Studies, I could make sense of the unfathomable intercultural crossovers I had just witnessed: Hebrew prayers sung in Cuban synagogues, bagel and lox dishes served on a summit in the Argentine Andes, and American folk jam sessions in a medieval Spanish city. Conversely, I could come to terms with the communication hiccups I experienced in what I always considered a single Spanish language among different areas of the Spanish-speaking world.

It is precisely this phenomenon that drew me to Carlos Gámez Pérez’s story. In “Abductions in What Is Not and Never Was Your City,” the narrator experiences linguistic clashes between his Peninsular Spanish and the Spanish of Miami—including a hybridization of Latin American Spanish, Spanglish, and English—until a gradual assimilation of his lexicon leads him to believe he has been abducted by extraterrestrials. This work spoke directly to my experiences of arriving in Spain with a stretched out Argentine accent full of Lunfardo slang and then later visiting Cuba equipped with a peninsular dialect. Through the translation of this unique work, I hope to shed light on translation theory for multidialectal and multilingual works, which have received little attention in Translation Studies. Above all, my principal motivation for taking on this project is rooted in what first drew me to translation: its capacity for social healing. I firmly believe that making this story available to the English-speaking world now is imperative given the current political situation and the work’s unique view on immigration, assimilation, and cultural identity.

Because the multiple Spanish dialects present in this short story have no true equivalents in the English language, this translation has been an arduous task, as has pursuing translation. However, the community of scholarship, curiosity, and interdisciplinary at the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry has been the perfect environment for working on my honors thesis and pursuing translation. Our weekly Wednesday lunches activate and strengthen the critical and creative pathways necessary for a demanding project. Whether a debate centered on the academic’s role in the current political climate or a fellow’s research presentation on the socio-political implications of medieval literature, the Center has been a space to engage in interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary at the Fox Center is what truly makes these two houses on North Decatur Road feel like a single home. Fox fellows who are specialists in their fields are always actively concerned and curious about one another’s research progression and generously offer valuable feedback originating from a perspective shaped by another discipline.

Above all, my time at the Fox Center has helped me shed what renowned Translation Studies scholar Lawrence Venuti calls the translator’s invisibility[2]. The inquiry and curiosity Fox Fellows have expressed towards translation through conversations have given me the encouragement to continue pursuing translation in a world where book cover reviews of translations fail to recognize translators and many consider translation a straightforward task a computerized algorithm can perform. The academic friendships I have forged while at the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry have served as a true confirmation that I wish to pursue a career in academics where I hope to one day find a scholarly community that comes close to this one that graces Emory University.

[1] Gámez Pérez, Carlos. Personal Interview. December 2, 2016.

[2] Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. Routledge, 2008.

Prints Reframed: Curating an Online Exhibition of Works on Paper by Félicien Rops

Hannah Rose Blakeley

Etched metal plates, poster-sized prints colored pink and turquoise, and folders of lithographs spill across a row of tables in the Print Reading Room of Belgium’s Royal Library in Brussels. Andi McKenzie—the Michael C. Carlos Museum works on paper curator and my supervisor—and I are examining materials by Belgian Symbolist Félicien Rops (1833-1898), comparing aspects of design and technique in these works to our digitized photos of those in the Carlos’s collection. Squinting through a magnifying glass at one such photograph, I count the number of lines in a hatched shadow of the print and then count the lines etched into the corresponding area of the copper plate on the table in front of me. I sigh, relieved—they match.

In 2013 Emory’s Carlos Museum received a collection of nearly two hundred works by Félicien Rops. The collection, donated to the Carlos by the Stuart A. Rose Library, consists primarily of two large binders of prints as well as a large hand-colored etching of Rops’s famous Pornocrates (1896). This comprehensive collection represents many facets of Rops’s oeuvre, from prints exploring his working-class sensibilities to satirical journalism and book frontispieces. It provides examples of his consistent experimentation with the printmaking medium and displays his mastery of a multitude of printmaking techniques.

Because works on paper are fragile, most can be exhibited for no more than three months at a time, and the Carlos mounts only two works on paper exhibitions per year. In order to reach a wider audience than sporadic site exhibitions can invite, I am working with the Carlos Museum, the Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory program (SIRE), and Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) to create an online exhibition of the Rops materials, to be published in spring 2016.

To this end, I traveled to France and Belgium for a week in early January on a SIRE Independent Research Grant, accompanied by Ms. McKenzie. We visited a relevant exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the print archives of the Royal Library of Belgium, and the Félicien Rops museum in Namur, where we met with the museum’s curator, Véronique Carpiaux, to discuss Rops’s oeuvre and the Carlos’s collection. I also conducted a video interview with Ms. Carpiaux, which I plan to incorporate in my exhibition, along with a translation of the interview from French to English.

Prior to this trip my research had included catalogues raisonnés (systematic, annotated catalogues of the artist’s work) on loan from the Rose Library and other secondary sources, and in my reading I had encountered discrepancies between texts that offered contradictory plate and print measurements, media classifications, or descriptions of state. Some of these differences may stem from Rops’s experimental approach to printmaking—in which the artist would reproduce an etching or a drawing in a photochemical process such as heliogravure and then retouch the plate with drypoint, etching, or aquatint before reprinting—but in order to make true progress towards resolving these questions, I needed to investigate the metal plates myself and speak with one of the leading Rops scholars in Belgium.

In addition to yielding important information about the technical and artistic processes behind some of the works in the Carlos Museum’s collection, this trip to France and Belgium reaffirmed my love of research and working directly with art objects in archives, libraries, and museums, with the goal of framing these prints and drawings within more broadly accessible terms, contexts, and media. While various aspects of the preparation occasionally felt intimidating, I gained some familiarity with the procedures associated with such projects and began to establish research connections with international institutions. The Rops materials at the Carlos provide an ideal opportunity to explore the ways in which the museum can utilize digital resources to bring its collections and exhibitions beyond Emory University and the Southeast to international, art-loving, and scholarly audiences.

Exploring Maoist Propaganda at the National Library of Medicine: A Glimpse into Archival Research

A Holst for BLOG

 by Abigail Holst

               My winter break following the fall semester of my senior year at Emory was what some would call unconventional. From January 4-9, 2016, I spent five days poring through the Chinese Public Health Posters collection at the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) History of Medicine Division in Washington, D.C. My visit to the NLM was borne out of my interests in the use of propaganda posters to convey health-related and political messages in China during the “four pests” campaign and 2003 SARS epidemic.

What is the “fours pests” campaign, and why does it merit scholarly attention? In 1958, Mao Zedong (founding father of the People’s Republic of China and former Chairman of the Communist Party of China) initiated a hygiene campaign designed as a means to eliminate the “four pests” – rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes – to aspire toward his ideal of a utopian socialist society and achieve what he believed constituted the requisite standards of cleanliness and hygiene therein. A concerted, highly coordinated, and foolhardy assault against nature, the “four pests” campaign is infamously known for its militaristic mobilization of human energy and unintended toll on the environment and human population. In a BBC news report titled, “China Follows Mao with Mass Cull,” Tim Luard noted an interesting connection between the imperative of ‘extermination’ in Mao’s “four pests” campaign during the late 1950s-early 1960s and the attempts to eradicate civet cats during the 2003 SARS epidemic in China.[1] My current research builds upon this observation by comparing rhetorical and visual elements in propaganda posters from these two historical periods of importance in China; in other words, my work explores the legacy of Mao’s veritable “ideological war on nature,” as evidenced by propaganda used during the recent 2003 SARS epidemic.[2]

The bulk of the primary sources for my research consisted of Chinese public health posters. My rationale for analyzing public health posters relates to the political, social, and rhetorical weight that poster propaganda has carried in China, historically speaking. As Johns Hopkins History of Medicine historian Marta Hanson stated, “public-health posters are a window into the history of medicine and the politics of public health.”[3] Public health posters present a vibrant means to explore the visual representations of public health campaigns in the past and present. In China, the use of propaganda posters for mass persuasion dates back as early as the fifth century B.C.E.[4] During the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in China, poster propaganda became a fixture in daily life.[5] Mao held a firm conviction in the power of wall posters (such as Dazibao, or “big character posters”) to mobilize the masses and disseminate political rhetoric. The rhetorical themes and visual genres found in such posters – such as the use of moral/ethical appeals and traditional art forms like the Chinese New Year print (i.e. Nianhua) – merit investigation because they illuminate the power of rhetoric as a major means to mobilize the masses and achieve political ends.

As I discovered while conducting a literature review and searching for primary sources for my thesis, although there are multiple online databases and exhibitions featuring historical Chinese propaganda posters (such as, the volume of posters available on such websites does not begin to compare to the extensive array of posters available in the Chinese Public Health Posters collection at the NLM. The NLM acquired this trove of seven thousand Chinese public health materials (including items produced from the early 1900s to the SARS epidemic) in 2006. Dr. Paul Theerman, former chief of Images and Archives in the History of Medicine Division at the NLM, described the collection of posters as likely “the largest collection of Chinese public health posters outside of China.”[6]

After discovering that this resource existed, I decided to apply for a SIRE (Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory) Independent Research Grant in fall 2015 to fund a trip to D.C. the following semester. During my visit to the NLM, I spent approximately eight hours per day examining and documenting materials pertinent to my research. In the end, I accumulated nearly 600 photographs. As an archivist I became well acquainted with at the NLM remarked, I had started to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” on day four. By the end of my last day at the archives, I was told that I had finished looking through the majority – if not all – of the collection. As I’ve had previous experience with archival research at the National Archives in Atlanta, Georgia Archives, and the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, I felt sufficiently prepared prior to my visit to spend my time efficiently and properly document materials for analysis. Little did I know that the most challenging aspects of my research would follow my visit to the NLM.

While identifying and documenting pertinent materials proved to be a relatively simple task, the organization, synthesis, and analysis of my data presented unique challenges. For previous research projects, I’ve kept track of primary sources (e.g. newspaper articles) by using a consistent naming system (i.e., “Date of publication_Newspaper title_Author name_Article title.”) However, I realized that the archival materials I documented at the NLM contained or omitted different information. This made it difficult for me to devise a uniform naming system for my 500+ photographs. I ultimately decided to take notes on the photographs in a Google Document based on their original file names. The next challenge involved analyzing and categorizing my primary sources into different visual genres and rhetorical themes. I referenced secondary literature to identify methodology in visual anthropology, visual genres specific to Chinese propaganda posters, and analytical tools pertaining to linguistics. I found that the best approach was to consult academics from diverse fields, including: my faculty advisor, committee members, and other Emory faculty members. In the end, my decision to visit the NLM and collect primary sources proved to be indispensable to my thesis and challenged me as a researcher to continue to hone my methodologic, analytic, and organizational skills.

[1] Luard, Tim. “China Follows Mao with Mass Cull.” BBC 6 Jan. 2004. Web. <>.

[2] Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

[3] Hanson, Marta. “The Art of Medicine: Maoist Public-Health Campaigns, Chinese Medicine, and SARS.” The Lancet 372 (2008): 1457-8. Print.

[4] Lu, Xing. Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture, and Communication. Columbia: U of South Carolina Press, 2004. Print.

[5] Landsberger, Stefan. Chinese Propaganda Posters: From Revolutionization to Modernization. Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1995. Print.

[6] N.a. “Introducing “Health for the People,” An NLM Online Exhibition of Chinese Public Health Poster, Transparencies, and Pharmaceutical Ads.”, 04 May 2010. Web. 8 Oct. 2015. <>.