Harvard library passport exhibit highlights stories of migration

Passports frame exhibit visitors at Harvard's Houghton Library, which is hosting the “Passports, Lives in Transit” exhibit through Aug. 18.
Passports frame exhibit visitors at Harvard's Houghton Library, which is hosting the “Passports, Lives in Transit” exhibit through Aug. 18.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The colorful quilt of passports looks worn and faded.

They hang one above the other, remnants of a different time, gatekeepers in some cases for countries that no longer exist.

It took two doctoral students months to track down the expired documents found in Harvard University collections for their exhibit, “Passports: Lives in Transit.” It also includes many expired passports the two students bought on eBay from strangers around the world, as well as visa applications and other items related to migration and travel.

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The exhibit is on display at Harvard’s Houghton Library until Aug. 18.

Co-curator Lucas Mertehikian, who is studying romance languages and literature, said he and co-curator Rodrigo Del Rio wanted to explore the importance of these small booklets.

“Countries own passports, not people,” Del Rio said. “What happens with passports that belong to countries that don’t exist anymore, like the USSR or Yugoslavia?”

It took two doctoral students months to track down the expired documents found in Harvard University collections for their exhibit.
It took two doctoral students months to track down the expired documents found in Harvard University collections for their exhibit.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Passports are telling, Mertehikian said, because they give insight into where people traveled, such as those who fled the Armenian genocide. In one personal portion of the exhibit, Harvard student Anthony Otey Hernandez provided items that belonged to his late mother that told of her experience coming to the United States from Costa Rica.

“Passports always tell stories,” Mertehikian said, “much more than other kind of documents, which might be even more important in everyday life such as ID cards or driver’s licenses.”

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Among the passports borrowed from Harvard University for the exhibit are Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s passport, a passport from Nazi-occupied Germany that belonged to prominent physician Gertrude Neumark Rothschild, and a passport for 19th-century American entrepreneur George Francis Train, said to have been the inspiration for the protagonist in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days.”

A selection of writer Gore Vidal's passport photos.
A selection of writer Gore Vidal's passport photos.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff

On Friday, during a free event, there were panel discussions on identity, migration, and passports.

“It’s easier for these passports to travel to the United States in their cancelled status than these people to travel to the United States,” Del Rio said of the passports they ordered online. “It’s a very strange artifact because we own part of the history of these people in a way.”

Photographs and mementos belonging to the mother of a Harvard student.
Photographs and mementos belonging to the mother of a Harvard student.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A passport photo belonging to Shirley Graham Du Bois.
A passport photo belonging to Shirley Graham Du Bois.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff