by Kristin Letsch
Harpur College professor Nancy Um will spend the 2013–14 academic year researching 18th-century merchant societies to ultimately understand how these peoples paved the way for modernday globalization.
“There’s been a lot of interest in early trade and it’s been contended that the Indian Ocean world represents this premodern globalized society,” says Um, an associate professor of art history. “I think even just as an art historian, asking questions about how people conducted trade in the 18th century and what kinds of cultural codes they followed to engage in this cross-cultural interaction [is important].”
Um graduated from Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in art history and went on to obtain both her MA and PhD degrees in the same field from UCLA. For the past 12 years, she has been on the faculty of Binghamton University’s Art History Department, specializing in Islamic art and architecture, Asian art and early modern trade.
“When I was in college, I went to study in Egypt for my year abroad,” she says. “I got really excited by the city of Cairo because it is like a living museum. . . . It really turned me on to Islamic architecture and how interesting it was.”
As of September, Um will be at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, after receiving a Getty Scholar Grant, which is awarded to established art historians.
“Every year they have a theme, and this year the theme is ‘Connecting Seas: Cultural and Artistic Exchange.’ My research is really focused on merchant societies around the Indian Ocean and the kinds of ways in which merchants communicate through visual culture and through objects.”
During her year hiatus from Binghamton, Um will examine trade documents and other historical materials for her upcoming book, The Material World of the Overseas Merchant in Yemen during the Age of Coffee. At that time, Yemen was one of the few places in the world where people could buy coffee, she says.
Unfortunately, today, Um is unable to travel to Yemen.
“The situation there has become extremely volatile recently and it’s almost impossible to even get a visa,” she says. “The reason I’m able to do this project is because I rely less upon field research for this particular project and more on archival research.”
Through her research, Um aims to uncover how different groups of people were able to trade with one another despite language, cultural and ethnic barriers.
“My contention is that [merchants] needed ways to represent themselves, to cross boundaries of culture,” she says.
"Essentially, what I would be looking at are the kinds of material objects that helped merchants communicate with each other and engage in long-distance trade in a world that was pretty risky."
Now we live in a world where this risk doesn't exist and we are so intimately connected, which wasn't always the case, Um says.
"It took time to traverse the distances of the sea," she says. "I think it's worthwhile to think about this moment of early globalization and the ways in which people interacted to cross cultural and ethnic boundaries. I think it is relevant even though it seems far away."
Last Updated: 6/3/15