Office of the President
Laura Skandera Trombley
Intellectual Romps and Scenic Treks through America’s Past
MAY/JUNE 2016 - And now some brief commentary about a subject that, truth be told, I never thought about until hearing it at The Huntington: guano. Yes, guano. That is, black gold; Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic tea. Really pricey bird droppings that, in addition to making great fertilizer and producing spectacular crops, created a 19th-century economic boom. As it turns out, one of our long-term fellows, Professor Daniel Immerwahr, a wonderful historian from Northwestern University, has spent a year at The Huntington researching a book on U.S. territories, and he discusses the history, use, and commercial purposes of guano in a chapter. As Professor Immerwahr insightfully reveals, the lust for guano for agricultural purposes made it such a stunningly important commodity for the United States during the 19th century that we nearly went to war with Peru, and it is the reason why some U.S. territories came into existence.
Audiences at The Huntington were treated to an intellectual romp through a very curious slice of American history that, for Professor Immerwahr, twists and turns in astonishingly personal ways. We videotaped the lecture, and I strongly encourage you to make a cup of coffee or tea and take time to savor on our new Huntington Channel what we all enjoyed hearing in person. You can find the Youtube link to Professor Immerwahr’s talk at the bottom of our website’s homepage. Professor Immerwahr’s work is proof positive that The Huntington not only plays a very relevant role in helping us better understand the complex and multilayered history of this nation, but also that our massive collections provide material to assist scholars in creating an exciting, multilayered, and contextual understanding of our present. With this first video of one of our many outstanding speakers, a new era has begun: the era of the Huntington Channel. Look for new videos to be added to our website in the future as well as live webcasts of events—bringing The Huntington to you, with the help of technology, when you can’t be here yourself.
Another fascinating slice of the American narrative being explored by historians at The Huntington is the founding of our national parks. This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and in May we open the first of two exhibitions celebrating this milestone. The show features some 100 rare items drawn from The Huntington’s collections. As an avid trekker, I have a particular fondness for the wilderness, not only because of what it has meant for my son. He and I have gone on some spectacular hiking trips together. As a result, we share a special bond that many other parents may recognize, one that is formed when you have climbed all day and you’re dog tired, and you happen around a bend, and suddenly an immense and breathtaking vista opens up before you, filled with the wonders of nature as far as the eye can see. You know in that moment that something has changed and that, in fact, it is your child. And you know that he will never forget this, and that he will always take with him a deep appreciation for this place, this moment in time, and the hard work that led to this most remarkable accomplishment.
Our national parks, as curator Peter Blodgett explains, were our very first cultural markers: “In those early years of Euro-American settlement,” he says, “we could claim no cultural assets like the Louvre or the castles on the Rhine. These parks quickly became our icons and were essential to our cultural identity.” Even today, that rings true. I hope that, even if you’re not able to go trekking in one of our national parks this summer, you’ll come visit the exhibition and celebrate these great places that bring us together.
Laura Skandera Trombley, President