Publication Date

October 1, 1992


Visual Culture

In 1792, Columbus’s arrival in the Western hemisphere was first celebrated, with parades and oratory, as the symbolic founding event of a new nation. In 1892, the Columbian Exposition was a spectacular celebration of national industrial progress; Columbus himself stood as an exemplar of resourceful individualism. If Columbian centenaries in the past have symbolized moments of national self-identity, the news in 1992 is that national self-identity itself is a subject of dispute.

In this period of multicultural debate, there are fundamentally different and competing interpretations of a national past, which—as Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino people, among others, point out—includes slavery, genocide, and colonialism as well as more familiarly featured positive qualities. History itself—who should tell it, from what points of view, and for what purposes—has become a subject of heated public discussion.

Variously called a discovery, an encounter, an invasion, or—perhaps most neutrally—a “contact” (the very problem of naming suggests some of the essential issues), the meaning and consequences of Columbus’s voyages are under scrutiny in the popular media, as well as in scholarly writing. This is a rare opportunity for the work of historians to reach broad audiences, and there are several major television presentations in which scholars have played active roles.

At the 1991 AHA annual meeting in Chicago, a panel entitled “’92: Historians and Television” brought together historians Peggy Liss, Franklin W. Knight, and Peter Winn to discuss their participation in three series: The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, Columbus and the Age of Discovery, and Americas. These productions, together with a two-hour special, Surviving Columbus, compose the core of television programming broadly related to the Quincentenary.

(All of these productions have been designed with classroom use, in addition to television broadcast, in mind. See below for broadcast dates, as well as information about companion publications and videocassette distribution.)

According to Zvi Dor-Ner, executive producer of Columbus and the Age of Discovery, it was the controversy surrounding the Quincentenary that inspired him to create a series that acknowledges diverse viewpoints, but which “never intended to choose among these attitudes.” This seven-part series, the only Quincentenary television project to receive production funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, portrays Columbus as an agent of history, a man who unwittingly unleashed the forces of the modern world.

The series might be called Discovering Columbus, as it searches out his religious, intellectual, and political world, as well as details of his voyages and cultural legacies. The programs’ attempt to see Columbus’s experiences from his point of view, visiting places in which he lived, following sea routes that he sailed, and quoting from his letters and journals.

This documentary was filmed in twenty-seven countries, from the spice markets of Cairo to archaeological excavations in San Salvador, in order to find evidence of the past in the world today. Contemporary pageants, holidays, parades, and other ritual remembrances of Columbus provide a leitmotif. Location filming is combined with animated maps, engravings, oil paintings, and artifacts to provide visual information and backdrop to narration by Colombian diplomat and writer Mauricio Obregon, who is the series host. Several scholars, including William H. McNeill and Franklin W. Knight, provide commentary.

Two episodes follow the building and launching of replicas of Columbus’s vessels and their subsequent voyage to the Caribbean, following Columbus’s own logs. The experience of fifteenth-century navigation is suggested through the use of maps and nautical instruments of the time, and first-hand accounts of the rigors of shipboard life. One episode examines the impact of conquistadors, churchmen, and European-borne diseases in the Americas; another suggests the global consequences of the exchange of crops and natural resources, especially precious metals, between continents.

The final episode considers a question that never appeared on the public agenda of the new nation of 1792 or the industrial titan of 1892: Is the Quincentenary cause for celebration? After a tour that includes indigenous peoples’ protests in Mexico, a memorial to slaves in Jamaica, and civic parades in Columbus, Ohio, and New York City, Obregon comes down on the affirmative side. Columbus, he suggests, was a man who “himself represented that age and culture that produced him … the best and the worst,” and who deserves to be celebrated as an extraordinary mariner who changed the world.

Carlos Fuentes introduces The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, saying of the Quincentenary, “We in the Spanish-speaking world wonder if there is anything to celebrate.” This personal essay, written and presented by Fuentes, an author, scholar, and diplomat, explores the polycultural dynamics of three major Spanish-speaking areas of the world: Spain, Latin America, and the United States. It focuses on the complexity, continuity, and sustaining strength of Hispanic culture in the Americas, as a rich mixture of Indian, African, and European elements.

The Buried Mirror, which received principal funding support in Spain, is a Columbus Quincentenary project produced in association with the Smithsonian Institution. It is a series of five one-hour programs, available in both English and Spanish.

Taking his central metaphor from the sacred mirrors found in ancient tombs in the Americas, Fuentes says the mirror has power to “show us ourselves,” and his picture is an inclusive one, not only in terms of cultures, but over time—from the caves of Altamira to modern Los Angeles. Visiting excavations, churches, and temple sites, modern-day Latin America, and ancient festivals in Spain, the series provides a panoramic sweep of history.

The story that Fuentes tells is visualized in paintings, graphic art, archival film footage, and photographs, as well as location filming in Spain and the Americas. The first two programs focus on Spain—itself described as an amalgam of Celtiberian, Arab, Jewish, and Mediterranean peoples—and the Americas, from earliest times to the Conquest. The third program looks at the Golden Age in Spain and the colonial empire, exploring the works of Velasquez and Cervantes on the one hand, and the works of Indian artists whose transformations of baroque style are seen in the churches of Potosi and Ocotlan, on the other. The fourth episode traces nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Latin American revolutions, with particular emphasis on the Mexican Revolution. Here, as in other episodes, while neither individuals nor institutions are neglected, the focus is social, reflecting Fuentes’s own emphasis on “society as the creator and bearer of its own values.”

It is to culture, as well as political history, that Fuentes looks for the traditions, beliefs, and values that foster socially productive community life and democratic ideals. The final program, Unfinished Business, surveys contemporary situations of social and political crisis, in juxtaposition with the continuity and vitality of richly mixed Hispanic culture, created “with joy, gravity, and risk … during the past five hundred years.” Fuentes ends as he began, with the metaphor of the cultural mirror, which can reflect an ever more inclusive array of human possibilities.

Americas is a documentary series and telecourse that can, in a broad sense, be said to deal with the aftermath of Columbus’s voyages. This series, which portrays contemporary Latin America within a historical and cultural context, is part of a comprehensive package that includes several publications and extensive telecourse materials. Scheduled to premiere on PBS in January 1993, the series was unavailable for preview at this time. (See the sidebar for additional information.)

A final program, Surviving Columbus, is a two-hour special that presents the arrival of Europeans on this continent through the eyes of Pueblo Indian people, and celebrates “the ability of the Pueblo peoples to survive Columbus and his descendants.” A coproduction of KNME-TV/Albuquerque and the Institute of American Arts, this is a Native American project.

The story, which begins in prehistory and continues to the present day, is told by storytellers, artists, scholars, tribal leaders, and others who together weave a multilayered past. Documentary footage is combined with archival film and photographs, dramatic reenactments, and poetic video effects that suggest the startling initial appearance of conquistadors in the ancient villages and vast landscape of the Southwest. The result is an evocation of the spiritual and cultural dimensions of Pueblo Indian experience, as well as the more literal historical record.

The first hour begins in the ruins of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, with the Zuni account of the origins of the tribe before historical time, and continues through Coronado’s barbarous incursion and Spanish conquest and settlement, to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which was followed by twelve years of independence for the Pueblo people. The second hour concentrates on the consequences of United States policies, which ranged from paternalism to cultural destruction. The program closes with the situation of Pueblo peoples today. In Surviving Columbus, as in Native American cultures, history is embodied in many forms and voices: in poetry, legend, oral history, song, ritual practices, and art, as well as in written accounts.

While each of these productions finds occasion for celebrating the Quincentenary, no two celebrate the same thing. But their very range of themes and approaches suggests the influence of recent debates about the meaning and representation of history in general, and the Quincentenary in particular.

Columbus and the Age of Discovery, perhaps the most conventional of these productions with its “great man” focus, acknowledges the debate and invites the audience to consider Columbus’s heroism as a vexed question rather than a closed story. The Buried Mirror, on the other hand, focuses on culture as a political and historical arena. In art, religion, and community life, the series locates democratic traditions that stubbornly counter authoritarian institutions and beliefs.

Surviving Columbus shifts the historical voice and point of view, challenging conventional expectations by privileging the perspectives of people who have rarely appeared in mass media on their own terms.

History, in this Quincentenary year, is a dynamic and debatable subject that has opened public awareness to the process of constructing the past and why it matters today. These productions are welcome evidence of television’s potential to bring multiple visions of history to broad audiences, and the important role that historians can play.

Columbus and the Age of Discovery

Zvi Dor-Ner, Executive Producer
Seven one-hour programs

Program 1. Columbus’s World
Program 2. An Idea Takes Shape
Program 3. The Crossing
Program 4. Worlds Found and Lost
Program 5. The Sword and the Cross
Program 6. The Columbian Exchange
Program 7. In Search of Columbus

Television premiere: 1991, PBS
Three-hour special: “Columbus and the Age of Discovery: A Magnificent Voyage,” October 11, 1992, PBS
Series Rebroadcast: Thursdays, October 15–November 26, 1992; PBS
Produced for PBS by WGBH/Boston in coproduction with the BBC/United Kingdom, SEQC and TVE/Spain, RAI/Italy, RTP/Portugal, NHK/Japan, and NDR/Germany.
Funding provided by Xerox, Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, George D. Smith Fund, National Endowment for the Humanities, Lowell Institute, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and public television viewers.
Scholarly advisors include: Juan Gil, University of Seville; Franklin W. Knight, The Johns Hopkins University; William H. McNeill, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago; Mauricio Obregon, Colombian diplomat and author; and Consuelo Varela, University of Seville.
A 32-page Teacher’s Guide is available.
Companion volume: Columbus and the Age of Discovery, by Zvi Dor-Ner with William Scheller. William Morrow, 1991. 372 pages, 224 color photographs, 96 b&w photos.
Educational video distribution: The WGBH Collection, (800) 828-WGBH.

The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World

Michael Gill, Executive Producer
Peggy Liss, Series Originator
Five one-hour programs

Program 1. The Virgin and the Bull
Program 2. Conflict of the Gods
Program 3. The Age of Gold
Program 4. The Price of Freedom
Program 5. Unfinished Business

Spanish and English versions
Television premiere: 1992, The Discovery Channel
Series rebroadcast: October 11, 1992, The Discovery Channel, noon to 5 p.m.
Produced by Michael Gill of Malone-Gill Productions for Sogetel, S.A., in association with the Spanish Quincentenary Commission in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution.
Companion book: The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, by Carlos Fuentes. Houghton Mifflin, 1992. A Viewer’s Guide, written by Peggy Liss, provides an overview of the content and objectives of the series, and includes key names and phrases, bibliography, etc.
Educational video distribution: Films Incorporated Video, Education Division, 5547 N. Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, IL 60640-7300; (800) 323-4222, ext. 43; fax (312) 878-2895.

Surviving Columbus

George Burdeau and Dale Kruzic, Executive Producers @BODY = Diane Reyna, Director
A two-hour special

Television premiere: October 12, 1992, PBS
A coproduction of KNME-TV/Albuquerque and the Institute of American Indian Arts and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development
Funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, Inc.
Scholarly advisors include: Tomas Atencio, University of New Mexico; Edmund J. Ladd, New Museum of Indian Arts and Culture; Alfonso Ortiz, University of New Mexico; and Rina Swentzell, Santa Clara Pueblo.


Judith Vecchione, Executive Producer
Ten one-hour programs; 13-part telecourse

Program 1. The Garden of Forking Paths
Program 2. Capital Sins
Program 3. Continent on the Move
Program 4. Mirrors of the Heart
Program 5. In Women’s Hands
Program 6. Miracles Are Not Enough
Program 7. Builders of Images
Program 8. Get Up, Stand Up
Program 9. Fire in the Mind
Program 10. The Americans

Television premiere: January 1993, PBS
Produced for PBS by WGBH/Boston and Central Television Enterprises for Channel 4/United Kingdom, in cooperation with Columbia University, Florida International University, and Tufts University.
Major funding provided by the Annenberg/CPB Project, with additional funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Public Broadcasting Service.
Academic Advisory Board: Chair: Alfred C. Stepan, Columbia University
Project Education Director: Mark Rosenberg, Florida International University
Project Academic Director: Peter Winn
Scholarly advisors include: Margaret Crahan, Occidental College; Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly, The Johns Hopkins University; Albert Fishlow, University of California, Berkeley; Cornelia Butler Flora, Virginia Polytechnic Institute; Jean Franco, Columbia University; Franklin W. Knight, The Johns Hopkins University; Marysa Navarro-Aranguren, Dartmouth College; Alejandro Portes, The Johns Hopkins University; Ruben Rumbaut, San Diego State University, Helen Safa, University of Florida; Thomas Skidmore, Brown University; Peter H. Smith, University of California, San Diego; Kay Barbara Warren, Princeton University; and John Womack, Harvard University.
Accompanying publications: Americas (trade book), by Peter Winn, Pantheon Books, 1993; Americas: New Interpretive Essays, edited by Alfred Stepan, Oxford University Press, 1992; Americas: An Anthology, edited by Mark Rosenberg, A. Douglas Kincaid, and Kathleen Logan, Oxford University Press, 1992; Modern Latin America (textbook), by Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith, third edition, Oxford University Press, 1992; Americas Study Guide, Oxford University Press, 1992.
A 13-unit college-level television course on Latin America and the Caribbean will be distributed through CPB/Annenberg.

Barbara Abrash is an independent producer, administrator, and teacher. She is coeditor of Mediating History (NYU Press, 1992) and teaches in the Public History Program at New York University.