Kislak exhibit features Mesoamerica collection of Penn’s first anthropologist

At the age of 50, after serving as a surgeon in the Civil War and later as an editor of a medical publication, Daniel Garrison Brinton retired. But not for long.

The Chester County, Pa., native soon found a second career in an entirely different field: ethnology. His evolving scholarship, specifically as a linguistics and archaeology professor at Penn in the late 1800s, would go on to define the discipline of anthropology in the United States.

“I see Brinton as a transitional figure who represents the end point of the 19th-century tradition of broad, amateur interest in Mesoamerica, and the early-20th-century shift toward a professionalized, university-based anthropology,” says Lindsay Van Tine, a Council on Library and Information Resources postdoctoral fellow at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, who’s spent the past two years studying Brinton’s work at Penn.

An “armchair ethnologist,” Brinton’s work—he produced more than 20 books and 200 articles and essays—was based on library research rather than fieldwork. To facilitate his studies, he formed a massive collection of manuscripts, books, maps, and artifacts. His focus was Native American languages, cultures, and folklore of the entire Western Hemisphere.

A new single-case exhibit, “Collecting Mesoamerica: The Hemispheric Roots of U.S. Anthropology,” on view at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library’s Snyder-Granader Alcove through Friday, July 7, takes a dive into Brinton’s Mesoamerica collection, one of his primary areas of focus. A portion of the showcased items hail from philologist Carl Hermann Berendt’s exhaustive collection, which Brinton acquired in 1871.

“During this time, there was a fascination with Mesoamerica, not just among scholars but the general public as well,” explains Van Tine, who’s writing a book about the history of collections of Americana. “Publications were booming because of expeditions to archeological sites in Central America and attempts to decipher Maya and Aztec hieroglyphics. Pre-contact Mesoamerica had writing, not alphabetic, but a combination of pictographic and phonetic.”

Van Tine, who curated the exhibit, says one of her goals was to bring together different aspects of Brinton’s collection, which has been split into a handful of different subgroups throughout the years. A total of roughly 4,500 books, manuscripts, and working papers make up the entire collection at Penn, and are maintained at the Kislak Center and at the Penn Museum.

“As a fellow, I knew Brinton’s collection was here, but at the beginning I had no idea of its scope,” says Van Tine, who also teaches at Swarthmore College. “I was really surprised at how rich it is. I think it’s a hidden treasure at Penn, and that’s partially because it’s been separated into different sub-collections, so people might not realize its amazing variety.”

Brinton, who also served as a professor at the Academy of Natural Sciences and as the president of the American Philosophical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, saw connections between all of the items within his collection, which “really fueled his hemispheric scholarship,” says Van Tine.

It’s food for thought for scholars today.

“For instance, people trained in text-oriented disciplines like literature and history often come to libraries, like the Kislak Center, to look at rare books and manuscripts, but they might not think to go over to the Penn Museum’s library, or realize there’s relevant information over there,” Van Tine says. “Knowing these materials that were once together may be in different places gives us a fuller picture of what was going on.”

Van Tine says she’s been working with the Penn Museum’s Library Director Deborah Stewart to plan another, larger version of an exhibit featuring Brinton’s collection in the future.

Van Tine is enthusiastic about the prospect: “There’s certainly enough incredible material to scale it,” she says.