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Connecting Seas - Getty Research Institute Los Angeles

A Visual History Of Discoveries And Encounters

Since antiquity, people have crossed the seas to explore distant shores and discover other cultures. The introduction of the printing press made it possible for illustrated accounts of travel and exploration to find wide distribution in Europe, and, soon after, other continents. Connecting Seas: A Visual History of Discoveries and Encounters, on view December 7, 2013 - April 13, 2014 at the Getty Research Institute, Getty Center, draws on the Getty Research Institute’s extensive special collections to reveal how adventures on other continents and discoveries of other cultures were perceived, represented, and transmitted during past ages of ocean travel.
 “This exhibition prompts us to see and consider the long history of cultural encounters, an endeavor we are still pursuing today,” said Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute. “The Getty Research Institute’s special collections are rich troves of original sources that offer insight into the history of representation spanning five hundred years.”
Featuring rare books, prints, maps, and navigational instruments - from Renaissance prints to Napoleon's monumental folios on Egypt to panoramic images known as vues d'optique, photographs and children's games - the exhibition traces the fascinating course of scholarly investigation and comprehension of cultures in Asia, South America, and Africa. These intriguing original works from the sixteenth- to the twenty-first century, mostly from European, but some of Asian and South-American origins, chart diverse narratives of discovery, exploration, commerce, and colonization, and illuminate the multiple and various levels of encounter at the roots of today’s globalization. The exhibition is organized under three themes: “Orienting the World,” “Expeditions and Exploration,” and “Commerce and Colonialism” and was collaboratively curated by six GRI curators: Peter Bonfitto, David Brafman, Louis Marchesano, Isotta Poggi, Kim Richter and Frances Terpak.
Most of the rare material featured in Connecting Seas is of European origin, which reflects the history of the GRI. In the past, the GRI was primarily dedicated to collecting and exploring the Western tradition. Some objects from other parts of the world already signal a recent programmatic change. As the GRI continues to broaden its scope of collecting and research, this more global approach will become a more visible aspect of exhibitions and public programs.
Connecting Seas draws heavily from the GRI’s special collections, including prints, photographs, drawings, rare books and ephemera from the 16th to 20th centuries. It also features navigational instruments, a painting on the North Atlantic slave trade and other marine objects generously loaned by the Kelton Foundation that directly complement the GRI’s collections on display.
Through deep research in the GRI’s rich holdings of primary sources and historical objects and documentation, the exhibition interprets images from the past to see how they transferred and represented the encounter of cultures. As Gaehtgens states, “by understanding how such encounters were embraced in the past, we can learn to think critically about our contemporary experiences and its challenges.”
“This exhibition invites the viewer to reflect on the complex, long history of exploration and exchange,” added Marcia Reed, Chief Curator, Getty Research Institute. “For every instance of misunderstanding, prejudice or exploitation there are examples of persistent intellectual curiosity, generosity, and empathy.”
Orienting the World
Mapping the world was the first step in discovering new lands. The first section of the exhibition displays the techniques and tools early explorers developed in order to navigate the seas. Knowledge of astronomical orientation and the invention of maritime instruments were necessary to face the challenges of ocean voyages. For example, an Islamic astrolabe from Maghreb helped mariners navigate by charting the stars.
As civilization gradually came to understand the Earth as a globe, discoverers created early representations of the continents that combined experience and imagination. A woodcut map from Magdeburg in 1597 depicts the world as a clover leaf with Jerusalem at the center, and the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa emerging from the center.
Expeditions and Exploration
Early travelogues of Europeans who visited Asia and Africa were at times extraordinarily fanciful, and hearsay reports generated strange imaginings and misunderstandings about other lands and cultures. In many cases bizarre legends were passed down over centuries, understood as true. A woodcut in Giovanni Botero’s early seventeenth-century book, Man from the Wilds of Asia, depicts a headless man with a face on his chest. The notion that such people had been seen in Africa and throughout Asia was centuries old at the time and could be traced to al-Qazwini, a 13th century scholar of Baghdad.
This second section of the exhibition explores how early travelers’ tales with such misinformation gradually became replaced by more scholarly studies. Exploration and collecting were followed by study and analysis. Enlightenment values motivated rigorous scholarly approaches to distant continents, but they also often coincided with imperialist ambitions of European rulers. Napoleon invited geographers, archaeologists, and scientists to accompany him on military campaigns in Egypt. After their return to France, this team of experts published precise, firsthand observations and groundbreaking research on the entire Egyptian world. Preoccupation with other cultures became the domain of professionals who valued firsthand knowledge of distant lands and employed systematic and scientific approaches. Among the most remarkable of these was the German explorer and intellectual Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively to many parts of Latin America. He returned to Berlin and Paris with significant specimens and notes and published his research. A German lithograph dating to the mid-1800s on view in the exhibition depicts Humboldt in his study, surrounded by maps, papers and objects from his travels.
Commerce and Colonialism
The third section of the exhibition examines how exploration, colonization, and exploitation characterized the age of modern imperialism, in which European nations competed for control over territories in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. International exhibitions in European and North American cities displayed the products of faraway lands or reproductions. Some children’s games disseminated prejudice - advertisements for the Belgian company Chocolat de Beukelaer from the early-twentieth century featured disturbing cartoon scenes of colonial encounters in Africa - and world’s fairs even displayed human beings who were brought to the European capitals along with (often inaccurate) reconstructions of their original dwellings.

Despite the rise in scholarly perspectives on exploration and travel during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, racial prejudices were often spread by in prints, journals, and photographs as trade among the continents increased. (Text: Getty Research Institute)