The Commemorating Augustus project is really gathering pace now. I’ve been developing some very exciting partnerships, which I hope to post about here once they are ready to be unveiled to the public. But before that I am off on a research trip to a place I never expected to be visiting in pursuit of Augustus’ bimillennium: New York!

The reason for my journey is that I am currently busy researching a paper on commemorations held for the bimillennium of Augustus’ birth in 1938. Ultimately this is so that I can compare and contrast them with what happens in 2014 in my book, but in the shorter term I will be giving a paper on the 1938 commemorations in their own right at a colloquium which I will be running at Leeds on Friday 10th May. My paper will be called ‘Peace for our time? Commemorating Augustus in 1938’, and you can read an abstract for it here.

The best-known commemorations of 1938 were held in Italy, and included a major exhibition, the clearance of Augustus’ Mausoleum and reconstruction of the Ara Pacis, academic publications, the issuing of stamps, coins and more. But although these events have received a great deal of scholarly attention, far less research has been done into the commemorations which were also mounted during the same period by people and institutions in America, Britain, Switzerland, Spain and elsewhere. So that’s where I come in. My trip to New York will involve looking at archival records from three commemorations which all took place within a 70-mile radius of one another, and were intimately inter-connected.

The first event took place at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie between March 17th and April 14th 1938 – i.e. a few months before the exact day of Augustus’ natal bimillennium, which was September 23rd 1938. There is a brief description of it here in the college’s online chronicle, and the events included a writing competition, an exhibition of photographs, coins and rare books in the college library, a lecture by the art historian Karl Lehmann-Hartleben, and a festival at which the winning competition entries were read.

The driving force behind this particular commemoration was a lady named Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, one of the college’s graduates and a member of faculty staff in the Department of Latin from 1902 to 1944. I’ve been reading up on Hazelton Haight in preparation for my visit, and she seems to have been an incredible individual. She travelled widely in Italy and North Africa, taking photographs and collecting objects as she went; founded a Classical Museum at Vassar; wrote ten monographs and numerous articles; was president of the American Philological Association in the mid-1930s; and consciously identified as a feminist. Her scholarship ranged widely, though focused above all on ancient fiction (with Augustan poets coming a close second), and she was passionately devoted to what we would now call public engagement, regularly writing articles for newspapers and popular journals. She also placed considerable emphasis what we would now call reception studies (i.e. exactly what I am doing!), tracing for example post-Classical reworkings of stories from Apuleius – and not just in written texts, but also in visual media such as tapestries.

From email correspondence with the college, it already sounds like there probably aren’t any very detailed records of the 1938 commemoration in their archives beyond the contemporary newspaper articles which I have already identified, but given that I need to go to New York city to work on the two other commemorations anyway, it seems silly not to make the short journey to Poughkeepsie as well while I am there. They certainly do have several files of Elizabeth Hazelton Haight’s correspondence, as well as correspondence between the college President and the Latin department, and various college yearbooks which I know Hazelton Haight wrote for regularly – so I will be combing all of those for any more information on the commemoration. I’m also hoping to visit the college’s Frances Lehman Loeb art center while I am there, where most of the artefacts from Hazelton Haight’s Classical museum are now held, in order to see an Augustan marble relief head which was the star attraction of the commemorative exhibition and the subject of the lecture given by Karl Lehmann-Hartleben.

The second event which I will be researching was put on by the American Numsimatic Society, and ran from April 28th to June 30th 1938. I’ve yet to prove a direct connection between this one and the Vassar commemoration, but it did feature a lecture by Lily Ross Taylor, who had taught at Vassar herself from 1912 to 1927 before returning to Bryn Mawr college (where she had done her degree). So she would certainly have known Elizabeth Hazelton Haight personally. The individual who actually suggested this particular commemoration, though, was not Ross Taylor, but a fellow of the ANS named Luigi Criscuolo. I don’t know much about him at present – just a few snippets – but am hoping to learn more while I am in New York. His name would certainly suggest that he had links to Italy, which may mean that he was following the burgeoning commemorative programme there particularly closely. I do also know that the Italian Ambassador and Consul General came to view the exhibition in June 1938, so Italians were clearly interested in it on an official level.

A numismatic society can get particularly good value out of an exhibition on Augustus, of course, because he had such a huge impact on how Roman coins were used. As part of his efforts to consolidate his position as Rome’s first legitimate emperor, he used coins on an unprecedented scale to spread his image around the empire and ensure that it was associated with carefully-selected iconography indicating what sort of ruler he would be. So coins are an incredibly important historical source for his reign, both individually and collectively. The ANS exhibition, which is described briefly on this page, seems to have put on display a selection of some of the most interesting examples, and I’m hoping to learn a bit more about exactly which while I am there. Certainly, I know already from talking to their archivist that they have four folders of correspondence, clippings and photographs about the exhibition, a contemporary copy of the exhibition catalogue, and various other files with administrative records relating to its preparation. So this should be a real gold-mine for me, and I am raring to get stuck in!

The final event I am going to find out more about was an exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from January 4th to February 19th 1939 (so this time a little after the bimillennium itself), for which this is the catalogue. The Vassar and ANS events both fed into this one, since the Met borrowed the marble relief head which had been the star of the Vassar commemoration and a number of coins from the ANS to include in its displays. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Met’s exhibition was also intimately linked to the Mostra Augustea della Romanità which had run in Italy from 23rd September 1937 to 23rd September 1938. Several of the items on display in the Met’s exhibition were plaster casts which had been made for the Italian exhibition, and then lent to the Met afterwards. In fact, the opening of the Met exhibition had to be postponed for a week (it was originally due to open on December 28th) due to shipping delays which prevented these items from getting to New York on time.

America, of course, followed an isolationist policy until 1941, so it probably seemed perfectly normal at the time for Italian and American archaeologists and art historians to be collaborating on an exhibition, in spite of the looming onset of the Second World War. But I’ll be looking for more detail about this connection in the Met’s archives in a quest to find out how it worked at the time and how the people involved saw the connection. I’m also particularly excited at the prospect of seeing a set of eleven photographs of the display which they hold, since although some of the exhibition materials are illustrated in the published catalogue, this isn’t true for all of them. The one item I’d most like to see is the marble relief head from Vassar college, since none of the contemporary publications about the Vassar event include a picture of that either. It means that while I think I have tracked down the right item in the Frances Lehman Loeb art center, I can’t be 100% sure, since I am working on the basis of a written description only. A photograph of the item on display in the Met could solve that particular puzzle for me – so let’s cross fingers that they have one.

I’ve never really done full-blown archival research before, since of course we don’t have archival material relating to the Romans. Or at least, we do, but Roman archives are recorded on fragments of papyri, illegible wooden tablets or bronze inscriptions, all of which require specialist research skills and sometimes advanced equipment simply to decipher them. The idea of just being able to go and look through folders full of letters and clippings, and being able to read them all straight away, seems very exotic to me. But the archivists I’ve arranged the visits with via email have all been incredibly helpful and welcoming, so I am really looking forward to giving it a go. And I do believe I may find some time in amongst the research to go up the Empire State Building, ride the Staten Island Ferry, eat bagels and maybe drink a few Cosmopolitans while I am there.