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BIRSS: Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five

BIRSS 2019

Exhibit Opening Remarks February 7, 2019

Good afternoon and thank you for joining us at the opening reception for the "Kurt Vonnegut & Slaughterhouse-Five" exhibition, part of the 19th Annual Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Program.

I have been mounting the Birss exhibitions for 18 years, producing all except the first. The addition of the Birss Fellows during the past three years has created a unique academic opportunity for students and brought new energy to the project. This year the Birss Fellows, both Honors students, are Nicole Andreson, a Creative Writing Major and Zach Santoro, a Criminal Justice and Cybersecurity double Major. They came ot this project bringing their own unique backgrounds and skill sets.

Before traveling to the Lilly Library at the Indiana University, Bloomington, we created a preliminary design for the exhibition and reviewed the Finding Aid for the Vonnegut Archive. The Finding Aid provides a brief description of the contents of the boxes and folders in the archive. By selecting the boxes that we thought held the most promise, we were able to submit our requests in advance so everything was ready for our review when we arrived. 

Each one of the Birss archive trips has a unique story. This year it is a love fest with the people of the Midwest. When we first arrived in Indianapolis, we traveled to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. There, we were met by Chris LeFave, Curator, who had opened the museum just for us, since it is normally closed on Wednesdays. Chris gave us a personal tour, pointing out the many highlights, including a room designed to replicate the study where Vonnegut did his writing. It is a strange arrangement for wiring as Vonnegut sat in a flimsy chair and bent over a low table to type away on his Smith-Corona 2200 typewriting. Just thinking about that set-up make my back hurt! 

Chris suggested that we also visit the Athenaeum, a building designed by Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. who was a well-known architect in the late 1800s. There we found an architectural gem, built in the German Renaissance Revival Style. Inside we viewed exhibitions relating the history of the German-American influence in Indianapolis. The Vonnegut family was prominently featured, which gave us a greater appreciation for Kurt's family background.

We then traveled to Bloomington to rest up before starting our research the next day. When we arrived at the Lilly Library we signed in and went directly to the Reading Room. We requested our first box and began our research. Before long, Isabel Planton, Public Services Librarian, and Zach Downey, Photo-Duplication Manager, stopped by to greet us and offer any assistance that we needed. Once again, that warm Midwest hospitality was on display. Nicole, Zach and I quickly became a well-oiled team, retrieving and documenting artifacts that we thought might be useful for the exhibition. This is an exciting process since each box we opened and each page we turned revealed more and more about Vonnegut as a writer and a person. It was also a tedious process, in that every item that we considered for the exhibition had to be fully documented with a photograph, description and specific box and folder numbers. This was necessary in order to submit photo-duplication requests at the end of the selection process. The other factor here was that we never knew what was coming. We would select a manuscript page. Then we would see another manuscript page that we liked better. Then we would see yet another manuscript page that we liked even more. There were a lof of manuscript pages, so this selection process became quite a challenge! 

Isabel and Zach joined us for lunch on the first day and talked about their work at the Lilly Library, particularly with the Vonnegut Archive of which both are huge fans.  They also gave us a tour of the Lilly Library exhibition on Kurt Vonnegut. A number of items from their exhibition are featured in our exhibitiion.

Late on the second day, once we completed our work at the archive, we took time to view the main exhibition at the library, "Frankenstein 200," featuring a copy of the first edition of this classic work by Mary Shelley. The Lilly Library is truly a treasure trove of literary gems! We only wished we had time to see more. 

Once we returned to Rhode Island, Nicole and Zach continued to work on this project by downloading the documentation for our archival selections to Google Drive. We then reviewed over 200 items, narrowing the list down to around 100 ... not an easy task! The students also worked with Professor Braver on the brochure for the exhibition. Finally, the photo-duplication order was submitted. Once the images arrived, they were printed, mounted and installed with the assistance of many library staff members. 

The exhibition is truly a team effort by the library, so I want to take a moment to acknowledge those who worked with me on this project: Liz Hanes, Heidi Benedict, Hannah Goodall, Chris Truszkowski and Victoria Ramos. Many thanks!