The adage “knowledge is power,” put forth by Francis Bacon in 1597, still carries weight into the twenty-first century. While an expression consisting of three words might be simple to understand, it is far more complex when we question which types of knowledge equate to power, and which do not. The mere fact that this exhibition begins with a quote from the Western canon speaks to this hierarchy. After all, power plays a role in deciding between what is history and what is myth, what is belief and what is superstition.
In the Americas, this type of discourse is directly related to colonialism and its legacies that are still felt today. Thus, when we see a Catholic church constructed upon an Aztec temple, it conveys the message that the Western belief system is superior to Indigenous epistemology, and therefore more powerful. Religion was one tool to impose power; this massive and widespread influx of knowledge production extended to agriculture, commerce, natural history, medicine, and even the cosmos. Yet despite colonizers’ attempts to eradicate Indigenous and, later, African and Asian cultures and knowledge through manuscript burning, evangelization, language erasure, and enslavement, these communities maintained integral parts of their collective identity. Constant attempts at cultural erasure persist to this day. One need only look at Terry Boddie’s Knowledge (2001), which inspired the title of this exhibition, to perceive this reference to the school system of the twenty-first century as a tool in the attempt to mold children to think and behave in certain ways.
A Hemisphere of Knowledge: A Benson Centennial Exhibit is a focus on that resiliency, but it aims to move beyond it and respect the diverse production of knowledge from the many cultures that make up what we now call the Americas. This exhibit seeks to present different types of knowledge production from the Americas while recognizing that our universality comes from relations based upon diversity, and that these relations, like cultures themselves, are constantly changing. Furthermore, the exhibition considers this knowledge against the backdrop and legacies of hegemony, thereby situating it within the power dynamics of colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. A Hemisphere of Knowledge is intentionally political because it values cultural beliefs that have been dismissed due to legacies of power. In the next six subthemes, materials from the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection will convey diverse knowledge production through a variety of items that resonate with each other.
The materials herein come from a century of collections at the Benson. They represent highly visible items and hidden gems, while also pulling from different collecting areas. These areas include our traditional analog Latin American and U.S. Latina/o collections in addition to the more recent Black Diaspora Archive. They also pull from digital initiatives like the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) and our post-custodial partnerships across Latin America in which the materials remain with their communities, but the Benson offers digital surrogates to researchers. The ideas and cultures represented here are but a small sampling of the exchange of knowledge that predates European contact and continues in the twenty-first century. This exchange has been both peaceful and violent, both given and stolen, both negotiated and imposed.
Some subthemes may be more Eurocentric in nature, others less. As the presentation of ideas unfolds, let the words of José Martí capture its essence. In "Nuestra América" (1891), he calls for a pan–Latin American identity grounds itself in the need to value autochthonous knowledge: “Knowing is what counts. To know one’s country and govern it with that knowledge is the only way to free it from tyranny. The European university must bow to the American university. The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours. We need it more.” This exhibit proposes that we reconsider ideas that were quickly dismissed due to cultural vainglory and that we acknowledge ancient wisdom alongside relatively new interventions.