Illustration by Shenuka Corea

NYUAD's Collection of Cultural Artifacts, Old and New

A look into the Archives and Special Collections section of the NYUAD library.

Apr 21, 2018

At the back of the NYU Abu Dhabi library, towards the left, lies the Archives and Special Collections, inconspicuously near the Administration department where we’ve all paid library fines at some point. Though a more pleasant experience, the Archives and Special Collections is less frequently visited.
“We’re a young collection,” said Brad Bauer, Librarian for Special Collections. “But we’re trying to build more materials to become a research destination for anyone interested in these topics.”
The Collection is designed around five main areas of interest to NYUAD research specifically and to Abu Dhabi more generally: Arab heritage, maps of the region, photography and photobooks, film and global Shakespeare.
Arab heritage encompasses a variety of materials, from 16th century European travel accounts to the personal legal documents of a lawyer involved with an arbitration hearing at ARAMCO. A recent donation by Salwa Mikdadi added a wealth of material on contemporary art in the region and the diaspora. In addition, Special Collections is working with Marcel Kupershoek, a Fellow from the NYUAD Institute who is a preeminent expert in Bedouin poetry of Saudi Arabia. Kupershoek was the subject of an Al Arabiya documentary called “the Last Traveler,” which featured him interviewing Bedouin poets in Saudi Arabia and reciting poetry. Al Arabiya has recently agreed to provide the Special Collections with over 70 hours of raw footage that didn’t make it into the 30-minute documentary.
Maps are of special interest to Bauer, for they show how people perceived this region. “Right now we mostly have maps of Europeans who encountered this region,” he said. “I like to see what stood out to people making these maps. Nine times out of ten with European maps, they’re interested in trade, in ports, and they don’t know much about the interior. They rely on hearsay from other travelers, sometimes they come up with place names that are really fanciful that don’t exist at all,” he said, smiling.
Special Collections stores many of the original photographs that the Akkasah Center works to describe, explain and digitize, and began collecting films during the days of the now obsolete Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
“We still like to collect films because we have recognized that a lot of regional filmmakers … might not get screened as widely,” said Bauer. “Film is … a pretty active program here at the university, and we really want to provide resources.”
The global Shakespeare collection “reflects broadly upon the university’s role in being … at a global crossroads,” said Bauer. One of the items he is particularly fond of was on display at the front of the library during the Fall semester: an illustrated Japanese translation of King Lear from the Meiji era in late 1800’s Japan.
“What’s striking is these illustrations of these characters from an Elizabethan play … showed the characters wearing 19th century Western European dress: top hats, tails, the whole nine yards, big dresses for the ladies. That was really reflective of a Japan that was opening up to the wider world … how they saw the play, even if it was written three centuries before,” he said.
There is a sixth, newer area of collection Bauer is hoping to promote: a university archive around NYUAD. “I tend to be motivated by the questions people ask that I’m unable to answer,” said Bauer. When a student from the New York campus wanted to find out more about NYUAD campus life, he realized there was a dearth of material about life on campus that did not come from Public Affairs photos of students walking on the highline.
He began taking note of ephemera: records produced for a distinct, short-term purpose, such as posters advertising events. “I saw one for gully cricket, and I thought, that’s interesting … that says something unique about this university and this time and this place,” he said. “So this semester I began looking at bulletin boards when I come to work in the morning. I park down in B2, come up the elevator, walk across campus and try to hit as many bulletin boards as I can, and if I see an event that’s no longer necessary to be posted because it’s passed, I bring it up here with me.”
Such ephemera could have informational value for the future, providing a snapshot of this point in the university’s life. He is interested in working with students or committees to determine what is part of the university’s culture and history and ought to be preserved.
“Every single one of us creates an archive, whether we know it or not, in our daily lives. The surprising part is how useful some of that might be in the future.”
Bauer is often in awe of how much can be done with archival materials and the surprising questions researchers have sought to answer with them. He recommends that students begin with secondary sources, gaining familiarity with the research topic of interest, before delving into the unpredictable offerings of the Archives and Special Collections.
“There’s more than meets the eye here. That’s the beauty of archives,” he said. “It’s different from doing research out in the stacks. Sometimes you’ll run into blind alleys, sometimes you’ll hit the jackpot. I would say it’s always worth at least trying.”
Archives and Special Collections is open from 11 am to 2 pm Sunday to Thursday, or by appointment.
Rosy Tahan is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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