Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

History comes full circle for curator Vanessa Wilkie ’00

Vanessa Wilkie ’00 thought she would be a diplomat, or maybe a lawyer, when she grew up. She came to the University of Redlands as a government major, but after taking a class with History Professor Jim Sandos, she was hooked.

“As I was doing my coursework I realized, ‘This is how I think!” she said. “I'd found my people!”

So she double majored in government and history, still thinking of law school as an eventuality. Then she went to Salzburg.

It was spring of 1999, and Peter Madler was director of the pivotal Redlands study abroad program. On one of their trips, the U of R group visited the Wittenberg Castle church, where Martin Luther had posted “The Ninety-five Theses” in 1517. The list—an academic dispute with the Catholic Church—was so impactful it started the Protestant Reformation. 

“Now the doors are cast iron, and the 95 theses are embedded in them,” Wilkie said. “I studied the Reformation in my history classes. To be in Europe and see the place it happened .... It all came alive for me.” 

Wilkie kept looking at J.D. programs after her semester abroad, but while her head said law school was the next logical step, her heart wanted to study history.

Her heart eventually won; Wilkie received a Ph.D. in history from the University of California Riverside, and worked as the Lossett Visiting Professor Redlands in the History Department before she became the William A. Moffett Curator of Medieval Manuscripts & British History at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. 

Wilkie loved teaching at Redlands. “It felt like it was an amazing opportunity to go back as a professor and to have Jim Sandos, my undergraduate advisor, as a colleague—he was such a generous mentor to me,” she said. Still, when she got a call from the Huntington Library about the curator position, she knew she had to act. “My predecessor had this job for 43 years so I knew this opportunity was too good to pass up,” she said, laughing. 

With Wilkie’s most recent curatorial effort, “The Reformation: From the Word to the World,” her past and present come full circle.

The exhibit, on display until February 26, marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the theses onto the Wittenburg doors. For Wilkie, it was a chance to showcase her curatorial eye on one of the events that inspired her to study history in the first place.

The Works of Horace (Venice, 1483) contains annotations by Martin Luther. (Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens)

The exhibit features 50 rare manuscripts, books, and prints made between the 1400s and 1648, which connect the dots between Luther’s dissertation, historical events, and various philosophies disseminated and mobilized through advances in publishing. The exhibit highlights themes such as censorship, war, and ideological beliefs, as well as the relationship between the written word and historical moments. It also encourages visitors to reflect on these centuries-old events in light of what is happening today.

Already, Wilkie brings a more contemporary curatorial gaze to the Huntington Library’s collection. A section calling attention to censorship features an empty book cradle, to emphasize that, despite the many historical books that exist today, just as many were destroyed. “Given my background in gender studies and feminist theory, I go back to the collections for voices that have been marginalized and silenced,” she said. “That's something that I'm really interested in digging out of the collections and highlighting.”

Another part of her curatorial philosophy is to show that different ideas resonate throughout time in different ways, through different platforms. “Like today, when we’re choosing between Instagram or a blog or Facebook, people in the 16th century were also thinking about which format best suited the message they were trying to convey,” Wilkie said. “Some ideas ended up handwritten; others printed.”

Book of Hours (Flanders, 15th century) is another manuscript on display. (Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens)

This broad perspective is one way Redlands impacted Wilke’s curatorial style. “Interrogatory learning, right? So much of U of R’s teaching is about professors asking students questions, instead of the other way around. That was part of my motivation in putting questions on exhibit wall panels. I was really quite aware of the fact that we filled this exhibit hall with books that are written in foreign languages and are hard to read. My hope is these questions will give viewers something to hold on to, so they see the material and then start to figure out what to look for. It makes these somewhat complicated exhibits more engaging.”

That’s not the only way that Redlands left a mark on Wilke; after all, being a curator is all about lifelong learning. “I did so much of my dissertation research at the Huntington; I started going there for conferences, seminars, and exhibits even as a student,” she said. “[Being a curator] feels like a continuation of my own education.”

In that sense, Wilke carries her Redlands education with her every day. “A liberal arts education is about figuring out logical ways to blend the subjects that seem disparate but are actually connected to the way we think about the world,” she said. “I learned not to be afraid of asking questions.”