The history and culture of Cuba extend far beyond the shores of the island itself. An important source of archival materials documenting Cuban heritage can be found at the University of Miami (UM) in Florida. From its founding in 1926, the university has maintained cordial relations with its Latin American neighbors, especially Cuba. In the 1920s, faculty from the University of Havana were invited to teach at UM, and other scholarly exchanges took place over the years. In the 1960s, many Cubans settled in Miami after the Revolution, and UM introduced new programs and developed resources to serve this expanding population.

The university’s important collections documenting Cuba, the Cuban exile experience, and the culture and literature of the Cuban diaspora were brought together in 1998 to form the Cuban Heritage Collection. Housed in the Roberto C. Goizueta Pavilion of the Otto G. Richter Library on the UM campus, the CHC “collects, preserves, and provides access to primary and secondary sources of enduring historical, research, and artifactual value that relate to Cuba and the Cuban diaspora from colonial times to the present.”

CHC holdings include some 50,000 volumes of rare and contemporary books, periodicals from Cuba, Cuban diaspora periodicals published around the world, manuscript collections of personal and corporate papers, and collections of photographs, posters, maps, postcards, and other materials. The holdings in theater history and photography are particularly rich.

The theater collections include the papers and memorabilia of playwrights, designers, performers, directors, and theater companies in Cuba and the diaspora. Working with the Cuban Theater Digital Archive, selected items have been digitized and are now available online, including selections from the Randy Barceló collection. Barceló (1946-1994) was a set and costume designer for Broadway and off-Broadway productions. He was the first Hispanic to be nominated for a Tony Award for costume design in 1972 for Jesus Christ Superstar. Other digitized materials include items from the papers of author Virgilio Piñera (1912–1979); theater director Herberto Dumé (1929–2003); playwright Manuel Martín, Jr. (1934–2000); and visual and performance artist Leandro Soto (b. 1956). Drawing on the riches of the theater collections, CHC staff have curated an online exhibition on this topic, Cuban Theater in Miami: 1960–1980.

Balloon sent from the National Observatory of Cuba to determine weather conditions, 1949.
Courtesy of the Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries.

Other treasures of the CHC include the photograph collections, with more than 5,000 images documenting historical subjects in Cuba and the diaspora from the 19th century to the present. Among the highlights are images from the War of Independence against Spain (1895–1898) and the Manuel R. Bustamente collection of some 600 photos from the early 1900s to the 1930s focusing on the architecture, life, and culture of Havana and other Cuban cities. Other collections of historical photos already online include the Ramiro A. Fernández Collection, with images of Cuban life from the 1890s through the 1950s, and the Tom Pohrt Collection, which includes 19th-century albumen prints, daguerreotypes, stereographs, and other early images of Cuba.

There’s also an intriguing online exhibition drawn from the Oricha Collection of colorful illustrations and lithographs by Alberto del Pozo (1945–1992), depicting the principal deities of the Santería religion. And of course the CHC has an online collection of Tobacco Art, including packaging labels, cigar trademarks, bands, and boxes. The collection of Cuban postcards offers intriguing glimpses of Cuban life and locales over the years. The Memory & Record page groups resources under such headings as: The Colonial Era, The Republic, Arts, Literature, or Havana 1900.

The CHC staff of eleven librarians, archivists, technicians, and assistants is headed by Esperanza de Varona, who for almost 40 years has played a key role in developing the collections and securing their current home on campus. In 2005, the university announced an endowed faculty chair named in her honor. Professor de Varona pointed out to us that the CHC has the most comprehensive collection of Cuban diaspora periodicals from all over the world, comprising some 1,800 titles and more than 100,000 issues.

Currently the CHC is organizing an exhibition on poet, author, and playwright Virgilio Piñera to accompany a seminar at the University of Miami in the fall. Theatrical Thunderbolt will focus on productions of his plays in the United States and will include original scripts, photographs, unpublished letters, and video recordings of a number of performances. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Lillian Manzor of the University’s department of modern languages and literatures, and will be on view at the CHC through December.

Meanwhile, anyone with an interest in Cuban music, theater, architecture, street life, or traditional culture can start digging in online. For a sampling of CHC images, visit the Cuban Art News Facebook page.

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Nadine Covert is a specialist in visual arts media with a focus on documentaries. She was for many years the Executive Director of the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA) and Director of its American Film Festival, then the major documentary competition in the U.S. She later became director of the Program for Art on Film, a joint venture of the J. Paul Getty Trust and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Covert has served on the board of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and is currently a consultant to the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA).