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Creighton awarded $350k NEH grant to digitize American expedition collection

Apr 22, 2022
5 min Read
Blake Ursch
Image
Karl Bodmer painting
ABOVE: Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893), Mih-Tutta-Hangkusch, Mandan Village, 1833–34, watercolor and graphite on paper, 11 1/4 × 16 5/8 in., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of the Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.382, Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019

 

A team led by Creighton University faculty has received a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize a collection of priceless artwork and documents chronicling a landmark 19th century expedition into the American interior.  

The project, The Natural Face of North America: A Public Portal to the Maximilian-Bodmer Collection at Joslyn Art Museum, is the result of a collaboration between Creighton, Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum and the Nebraska Indian Community College.  

Spearheaded by two Creighton College of Arts and Sciences faculty members – Simon Appleford, PhD, and Adam Sundberg, PhD, both associate professors of history and digital humanities – the project aims to create a free, publicly accessible digital portal of material from the Maxmilian-Bodmer collection, held by the Joslyn.  

The collection includes the most complete archive of material from the expedition of German nobleman Maximilian von Wied and Swiss painter Karl Bodmer across North America between 1832 and 1834. In their travels, the pair encountered more than 20 Indigenous Nations, including the Mandan people, who would later be devastated by a smallpox epidemic in 1837.  

The pair meticulously documented the people, plants, animals and landscapes they encountered on the more than 7,000-mile journey from New England to present-day Montana and back. The Joslyn’s collection includes more than 1,000 objects, including von Wied’s handwritten, three-volume journal and more than 400 original watercolors and drawings by Bodmer.  

Image of painting by Karl Bodmer
Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893), Sioux Camp, 1833, watercolor and graphite on paper, 7 7/16 x 10 7/16 in., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of the Enron Art Foundation, 1986.49.375, Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019

“All the while, they’re creating a visual record, while gathering ethnographic, linguistic and environmental data on this trip,” Sundberg says. “The collection that Joslyn holds is the most detailed, visual and textual European record of the American interior during this moment of profound demographic and environmental transition.” 

With the newly awarded grant funds, project staff, including students from a wide variety of disciplines at Creighton and Nebraska Indian Community College, will begin digitizing and encoding von Weid’s journal entries and Bodmer’s artwork, with the aim of building a digital portal in which users will be able to browse pieces from the collection and follow the expedition on a historic map.  

“This project will expose students in a really explicit way to some of the methods that we have in the digital humanities,” Sundberg says. “It’s not just professional scholarship they’ll be doing. They’re going to be learning these practical skills and employing them on a potentially very impactful project.” 

Creighton’s Ann Mausbach, PhD, associate professor of educational leadership in the College of Arts and Sciences, will also lead efforts to create a custom K-12 curriculum, developed in coordination with Native American communities, based on the material.  

We want to work with them to make sure that what we’re doing – how we’re framing the project, how we’re talking about the project and contextualizing the expedition – reflects their perspectives.”
— Simon Appleford

“A major component of this project is working with these communities that Maximilian and Bodmer encountered – the Omaha Tribe in northern Nebraska, the Mandan people and others,” Appleford says. “We want to work with them to make sure that what we’re doing – how we’re framing the project, how we’re talking about the project and contextualizing the expedition – reflects their perspectives.” 

The grant award was one of 245 announced by the NEH this funding cycle for projects that “expand the horizons of our knowledge of culture and history … and bring high-quality public programs and resources directly to the American public,” according to the NEH.