Voices from the Panama Canal: Finding the Other in the Colonial Archive

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Margarita Vargas-Betancourt, University of Florida
The purpose of this poster is to discuss the challenges to include the West Indian voice in the exhibit Voices from the Panama Canal, the signature exhibit of the Panama Canal Centennial celebration organized by the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida (UF) in August 2014. To present a poster at the AHA meeting allows UF archivists and curators to share the challenge of representing minority groups in the archives. Since the object of this discussion, an exhibit, is more than anything visual, a poster is a very effective medium for communicating the archivists’ reflections.

The exhibit and the celebration constituted an important part of the transfer of the Panama Canal Museum Collection (PCMC) to the University of Florida in 2012. In 1999, Canal Zone residents that retired to Florida opened the Panama Canal Museum in Seminole. Their objective was “to preserve the history of the American Era of the Panama Canal (1904-1999).”[1] The collection consisted of artifacts, publications, and manuscripts that U.S. Canal Zone residents or their descendants donated to the museum. In 2012, the Panama Canal Museum closed its doors and transferred its holdings to UF libraries. The collection is now known as the Panama Canal Museum Collection (PCMC), and the former museum members have become the Friends of the Panama Canal Museum Collection at the University of Florida. One of the major challenges that UF’s librarians have faced with the transfer is the need to incorporate the voice of the other communities that lived in the Zone, specifically that of the West Indians who in the early twentieth century came from the Caribbean to Panama to participate in the construction of the Panama Canal.

West Indian descendants and the scholarly community (faculty, students, and researchers) have come to UF to see and study the presence of West Indians in the collection. As a result librarians have started to incorporate and highlight such presence. The expansion of the constituents of the collection had to be addressed in the centennial celebration. One of the ways to do it was the organization of an exhibit on diversity in the Panama Canal. This exhibit also signaled the evolution from an exclusive collection (representing only white U.S. citizens who lived in the canal) to an inclusive one. However, the surveys that followed the centennial suggest that the original community perceives this inclusion as a divergence from the collection’s original mission.

This poster discusses the strategies followed in the organization of the exhibit to foster a strong relationship with the original community but also to embrace the new constituents of the collection, as well as the results of such endeavor. These results were collected through surveys prepared by the Libraries.

[1] Website of the Panama Canal Museum (http://cms.uflib.ufl.edu/pcm/Home.aspx).

See more of: Poster Session # 1
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