When Smithsonian magazine editors began combing the nation for a phenomenal historian under age 36, they were told the task would be daunting.
“Historians tend not to peak until later in their careers, we were told over and over again,” said Beth Py-Lieberman, a Smithsonian associate editor. “But when one of our advisers brought 34-year-old Daniela Bleichmar to our attention, we knew we’d found an ideal candidate.”
USC College’s Bleichmar, assistant professor of art history and of Spanish and Portuguese, is featured in the Smithsonian Institution monthly magazine’s special issue, “37 Under 36: America’s Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences.” It hit the newsstands Oct. 16.
Bleichmar was among the blossoming scholars, singers, writers, scientists, musicians, painters and activists and at least one computer maven honored by Smithsonian for outstanding innovation in their fields.
“These are people to watch,” senior editor Kathleen Burke wrote in the special issue’s introduction. “The men and women we honor have already distinguished themselves in some way — like novelist Daniel Alarcón, whose fiction integrates history, politics and character; or the chemical engineer Michael Wong, who plans to use gold dust to clean up toxic waste sites; or Geneva Wiki, whose charter school in Klamath, Ca., is encouraging Native Americans to stay in high school and [go to] college.”
Smithsonian staff combed through magazines, alumni publications, newspapers and scientific bulletins. They also queried experts and advisers in their quest. They singled out Bleichmar for her unique, multidisciplinary approach to her research.
“Daniela Bleichmar’s approach represents a fresh vision,” said Py-Lieberman, the special issue’s chief analyst. “It represents a new direction and the stuff of legacy.”
Bleichmar called the honor a “wonderful and complete surprise.”
“At the beginning of your career and especially when you’re doing something that’s not super-traditional, you’re never really sure whether you’re making sense,” said Bleichmar, who earned her Ph.D. at Princeton University in 2005, then was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at USC College before becoming assistant professor.
“So to get this validation at this point is very reassuring,” she said. “It makes me think, ‘OK, maybe this does make sense. Maybe I can weave all these threads together and do a good job with it.’ ”
Bleichmar recalled when she was a Princeton graduate student and decided to study the history of natural sciences in the Spanish Americas.
“I wanted to write about naturalists who traveled, collecting specimens to produce scientific knowledge,” Bleichmar said. “I found a tremendous amount of work had been done on British scientific expeditions, but very little had been written about Spanish scientific expeditions.”
Focusing her research, she discovered a staggering abundance of illustrations chronicling expeditions to the New World.
The voyages always employed artists who drew detailed pictures of plants and animals that would not survive travel. Whether the expedition focused on natural history, astronomy, geography or cartography, all expeditions produced numerous images to be studied by naturalists and other experts once home.
“I saw images everywhere,” Bleichmar said of her research that spans from the 16th through 18th centuries, when Spain grew to be the largest empire in the world. “But historians usually base their studies on textual evidence — books and manuscripts. Historians usually don’t base their studies on visual materials.” Bleichmar, however, is not your usual historian; so she queried her then-advisers at Princeton, “Can I do this? Can I study natural history as a visual discipline?”
Her dissertation explored the connections between images, visual culture, the history of science and the history of colonialism in the Spanish Empire.
“The work that I do is not traditional history of science and it’s not traditional art history,” Bleichmar said. “In my research, I consider images not only as aesthetic objects but also as documents, studying them for the information they contain, and the work they did for those who made and used them. This is above all a study of visual epistemology — the production and circulation of knowledge through visual means.”
Bleichmar, who is completing a book on the topic, said her unique approach has to transcend a significant barrier.
“One of the methodological challenges of this project was to think about how to use images as historical sources,” she said. “And be as thorough with images as materials of interpretation and historical argument as we are with texts. Beyond my fascination with the topic itself, the intellectual and methodological challenge was thrilling.”