Exploring the Early Americas

The Jay I. Kislak Collection


Exploring the Early Americas

Ongoing exhibition, opened December 12, 2007
Northwest Gallery, 2nd Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building

Exploring the Early Americas features selections from the more than 3,000 rare maps, documents, paintings, prints, and artifacts that make up the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. It provides insight into indigenous cultures, the drama of the encounters between Native Americans and European explorers and settlers, and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the American and European worlds. The exhibition includes two extraordinary maps by Martin Waldseemüller created in 1507 and 1516, which depict a world enlarged by the presence of the Western Hemisphere.

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Pre-Contact America

To learn about the indigenous peoples of the Americas, scholars draw on the rare texts that survived the European encounter, as well as objects used by indigenous peoples. The richest source of Pre-Columbian historical information comes from the ancient Maya, who developed the most sophisticated writing system in the Americas. The Maya and other native cultures often embellished their texts with illustrations, recording or carving them on objects of stone, ceramic, wood, and other surfaces. This section of the exhibition draws on select artifacts in the Kislak Collection and presents them as objects that, like books or documents, provide us with information about ceremonies, wars, court life, alliances, astronomy, calendars, and the reigns of kings. Reflecting the strengths of the Kislak Collection, this area deals principally with the pre-contact cultures of Mesoamerica, a territory that includes most of the modern countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador.  Read more about Pre-Contact America »

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Explorations and Encounters

Christopher Columbus’s voyages began a centuries-long series of encounters between peoples of the Americas and Europe. The Kislak Collection includes a selection of dramatic objects and records that reflect this complicated and extraordinary epoch. This section presents materials from the voyages of exploration of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), and Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541) and material about the natives of the Americas they encountered. It also features the Conquest of Mexico paintings, created in the seventeenth century, which depict the cataclysmic encounter between Cortés and the conquistadors and Moctezuma and his people.  Read more about Explorations and Encounters »

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Aftermath of the Encounter

The encounters between the Americas and Europe altered the civilizations of both deeply and irrevocably. Among the many dramatic changes resulting from the encounters are the three covered in this section. “Language and Religion” documents the efforts of Spanish missionaries to convert natives and to record their languages. “Competition for Empire” reveals how other European powers, and eventually the newly created United States as well, vied for position and control in the Americas. Finally, in “Documenting New Knowledge,” the exhibition examines two disciplines, natural history and geography, in which post-encounter Europe recorded the abundant “New World” information that often challenged their earlier conceptions and worldview.  Read more about Aftermath of the Encounter »

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Explore interactive presentations to learn directly from the artifacts, books, documents, paintings, and maps.

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