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Culture Watch: Our Spanish colonial history on paper

Walking into room after room of precious old documents in the recently-opened The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States exhibition at the Historic New Orleans Collection, few of us can completely comprehend the incredible effort that must have gone into their making. After all, we’re into a new communication era – the post-paper age. Today, when we want to send a message, we type words into some sort of technical device, push either the “send” or the “save” button, and there you are. If you’re one of the increasingly few still in the gotta-touch-the-paper mode, you might print out a version.

But for the 16th century Spanish explorers, whose communications are on display through letters, maps and drawings, it required hauling reams and reams of paper from the Old World. How careful would a Spanish explorer have had to be in 1598 to draw that perfect little rendition of an American buffalo in one of The Threads of Memory exhibits? After all, there was no running out to the local Office Depot store if he messed up.

Viewing the nearly 140 objects, many never before displayed outside of Spain, with this thought in mind completely changes one’s appreciation of how early Spanish colonial history, particularly its administration in Louisiana, was memorialized.

“Imagine this,” says Alfred Lemmon, director of the Williams Research Center at THNOC. “Boats coming over from Spain were really small; maybe the total size of today’s 747 plane. Passengers were allowed only about four square meters for their things. Since there was no paper manufactured in the New World, they would have had to bring it with them. And think about this; whatever it was that was written would then have to be taken back to Spain.”

All the objects in the exhibition are on loan from the 225-year-old Archive of the Indies, located in Seville, Spain. New Orleans, with its long, but often overlooked, historical connection to Spain is, appropriately, the last in a three-city American tour (it has already been on view in Santa Fe and El Paso). Even more appropriate is the fact that THNOC, itself, is located in a beautiful and historic Spanish colonial building in a district that much later came to be known as the French Quarter.

To make it easier to read the tiny print in many documents, THNOC is offering magnifying glasses to visitors. These, along with accompanying commentary booklets, help in appreciating the details in such ancient treasures as the 1699 map of the Mississippi River, the family records of the Canary Islander (Islenos) who emigrated to Louisiana in the 1770s, the 1788 illustrations of soldiers’ quarters in Baton Rouge, and one incomparable letter, written in 1521, in which Juan Ponce de Leon reports having discovered the “island of Florida”.

The Threads of Memory will be on view through July 10 at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street in the French Quarter. Admission is free. The gallery is open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.


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