'A welcome to Yale College' by Dean Mary Miller

Dean Mary Miller
Freshman Address
August 24, 2013

Good morning! Good morning President Salovey, Provost Polak, Secretary Goff-Crews, Chaplain Kugler, Masters, Deans, and honored guests. And welcome, women and men of the Class of 2017! Welcome to Yale University, and welcome to Yale College. I’m — we’re — so excited to have you here. We’ve been thinking about you since April, when the dean of admissions told us your names. Then we met some of you during Bulldog Days, we met a few more of you this week in orientation programs, but at last, Class of 2017, you are here. Welcome inside the walls, onto the playing fields, into the classrooms and the residential colleges — welcome. Welcome to the spaces and places you will soon call home. 

And welcome to all of the families and friends who have brought you to this day. You’ve come from Berlin, Connecticut, and Berlin, from Guadalajara to Gruenewald to Guangzhou, from Tokyo and Topeka. Thanks for having helped 1360 of the world’s most interesting and smartest young women and men find their way to today. We are going to have exceptional encounters with them over the next years — in the classroom, in the dining halls, on the intramural fields, in extracurricular activities. Let me add that we plan to have plenty of fun along the way.

Watch the Freshman Assembly video.

But, 2017, back to you:

You have arrived at a campus that witnessed an amazing transformation last year, when the Yale University Art Gallery re-opened after more than a decade of rethinking what a museum, and particularly a university museum, should be like in the 21st century. It is now a complex of buildings that hold a vastly expanded compendium of some of the world’s most remarkable and famous works of art.

The media went wild over the new museum, and now people come from all over the world to see the amazing collection of things for which the maker came to the task trained in his or her craft, resulting in extraordinary outcome, and which are imbued with meaning. Each painting, each sculpture, each thing in the Art Gallery exemplifies what painter Paul Klee said: “Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see.”

Yet here is an astonishing number: most art historians — and I am one — would estimate that 99% of all such works ever made are lost to us. Some are deliberately and willfully destroyed for economic, political, religious or personal reasons, from tapestries burnt to yield their gold and silver threads to the implosion of the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan to the recent rumor of Impressionist paintings burned to cover the tracks of thieves. Those objects had been part of the 1% to survive, and now they are lost to us forever.

But even without such human intervention, the survival of powerful, charismatic works is a dicey matter: fires, floods, and most of all time itself, do their damage, especially given that most works, on canvas or paper or made of wood or fabric, are perishable or fugitive. Left to the elements, works of art vanish, often leaving no trace. So it is not surprising that most of the objects I study from the prehispanic past of Mexico and Central America are those that were made of fired clay or stone, the two most enduring materials humans have ever worked. 

You have a picture in front of you of an object that is on display now at the Yale Art Gallery (although as I will explain in a minute it is in fact part of the Peabody Museum collection, across campus): it’s an Aztec carving from just about the time of the Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1519.  Images of the sort were made much of last December, at the time that the Maya calendar was reaching what Hollywood and the tabloids in the checkout aisle commonly called the “Mayan apocalypse” — but let me set you straight:  no ancient Maya ever used such an image: it’s Aztec. You look at the picture in front of you, and you immediately recognize that you are looking at an image of the sun, its rays shooting out from a nearly perfect circle. 

This carved stone came to rest in New Haven in 1887, when “the Aztec Fair,” a knock off of more popular traveling carnival pageants like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West came to town, only to go bankrupt here. The saleable assets were auctioned at a “sheriff’s sale,” where the founding director of Yale’s Peabody Museum purchased it. And about a decade later, he gave it to the Museum. Although almost all Aztec works of the period of the Spanish invasion had been destroyed, especially the figural ones thought to be at the heart of Aztec religion, a few fortunate but battered stone sculptures did survive, often because they were useful:  the great Aztec calendar stone, a much larger version of a work closely related to the one you are looking at, was set face down in Mexico city’s main square, to function as a convenient paving stone for 250 years.  Only through deep excavations in the past few years have archaeologists at the city’s center begun to expand a small corpus, recovering more Aztec works recently than in the previous 450 years!  The survival of the stone in front of you is a token of both serendipity and durability.

From George MacCurdy's "An Aztec 'Calendar Stone' in Yale University Museum," American Anthropologist Vol. 12 No. 4 (October-December 1910)
From George MacCurdy’s “An Aztec ‘Calendar Stone’ in Yale University Museum,” American Anthropologist Vol. 12 No. 4 (October-December 1910)

What does the stone itself say? It claims that the four previous eras of the earth have ended in disaster in which the sun collapses and humans vanish, each era named by the four dots and a glyph at the corners, starting in the upper left and moving counter-clockwise:  4 Jaguar, when jaguar marauders ate the sun, causing an earth-ending eclipse; 4 Wind, when hurricanes destroyed the world and blew humans into trees, turning them into monkeys; 4 Water, when floods annihilated the earth; and 4 Rain, when a volcanic rain of fire brought the earth to an end. The sign at the center is of “movement,” the name of the era, 4 Movement, in which the Aztecs lived, an era predicted to end in earthquakes, causing the sun to fall and to collapse for all eternity. Quite honestly, its message is audacious, for it is an Aztec cosmos, sustained by human sacrifice, that keeps this fifth sun in place, held up by the starry heavens marked along the four sides. One more battered bit, this carved stone served at the Aztec Fair in 1887 as backdrop to a story an entertainer recounted to the citizens of New Haven, of how a captured prisoner became a gladiator, tied to this stone, fending off all comers but refusing to join his Aztec captors.

Having survived some 400-odd years before arriving at Yale, the Aztec stone was put on view at the old Peabody Museum, then located at the corner of Elm and High Streets, now the home of Saybrook College. I like to imagine that it might have been on view right about where the kitchen of the master’s house now is, and so the stone, and I, who served as Saybrook Master for a decade, spent ten years in the same space, 100 years later. The Aztec stone survived the 1907 collapse of part of the old Peabody when reportedly a number of exhibits were destroyed; the new Peabody — the current Peabody — would open in 1925. Now, one year ago, the stone came to the Yale University Art Gallery for its new exhibition of Precolumbian Art.

The page you have in front of you is from the 1910 article by anthropologist George Grant MacCurdy. He had spent six years working his way through a teachers’ college in Missouri, and after a stint of teaching and serving as a school superintendent found his way to Harvard, where he had to earn another bachelor’s degree in order to pursue graduate work in biology and zoology. He then became a curator at the Peabody Museum with a key role in its educational mission. With interests that ranged from the Aztecs to the ancient Andes, MacCurdy focused his attention on the origins of mankind; his 1924 book, Human Origins, is now a fossil of its own: MacCurdy died before the earliest hominids would be confirmed to have evolved in Africa. But he would play a role in the opening exhibition at the Peabody that sent shock waves across the United States: in the wake of the Scopes “monkey” trial in the summer of 1925, in which the state of Tennessee had successfully prosecuted a public school teacher for teaching Darwin’s theories, the Peabody would open a few months later with an exhibition that displayed human evolution descending from great apes, in a full commitment to science and education. The Aztec stone was hardly noted in the hubbub that followed.

But the Art Gallery has now given the Aztec stone a featured setting, and it gives us a way to enter a lost belief system in a new context. It takes on a new life because of where it is, not only among other works from Mexico but also now among the other 1% of exceptional things — works of art! — to survive, gathered into one building — these works that bear an intensity of compression, like a poem, like a mathematical formula.

Any of these things — a work of art, a verse, a formula — compresses vast amounts of information and thought, as well as history. Your task, your opportunity, here at Yale and in life is to stop, to screen out all other distractions, so that you can study, investigate, discover, and interpret each one in light of your understanding.

Emulate this verse from a poem, “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” by Mary Oliver:

“I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.”

The place you have come to has an extraordinary number of powerful treasures, unique, charismatic things, and like you, they come from all parts of the world. Some of them are in the Beinecke Library, where President Salovey and I, along with our spouses, will greet you later this morning. More of them are in our amazing art and natural history museums, in our collection of rare musical instruments, and in our libraries. Let them become part of you, and let discovery guide your life.

And so, I close by saying to you, Class of 2017:

Open your arms.
Open your eyes.
Embrace seeing.
Embrace learning.

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