Peoples Temple at Jonestown



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Home >> Special Collections & University Archives >> New Notable >> Peoples Temple at Jonestown

Peoples Temple at Jonestown: Interpretations of Jonestown in Art, Photography, Sound, Film, and Words is currently on display in the Louis Kenney Reading Room of Special Collections.

Peoples Temple was founded in the 1950s in Indianapolis by the charismatic preacher Jim Jones. His church was based on the principles of biblical preaching, racial equality, and apostolic socialism. In the mid-1960s, the church moved to rural northern California; then in the 1970s to San Francisco, where it understood and identified itself in radically new ways. The church moved away from traditional Christianity and transformed itself into a secular political movement — all the while maintaining a core of Christian worship in the Pentecostal-Holiness and Black Church traditions.

In 1974, a small group of Peoples Temple pioneers began clearing land for an “agricultural project” in the South American country of Guyana. The project, called Jonestown after its leader, was a complete withdrawal from American society in an attempt to establish a communalist utopia. Over a period of three years, Jonestown made steady progress constructing housing, schools, a medical center, and other services the community would need.

But Jonestown was overwhelmed when more than a thousand Temple members emigrated from the U.S. in the summer of 1977. Pressure from oppositional groups, former members, concerned relatives, and hostile journalists also began to create a climate of fear and paranoia at Jonestown. Critical news reports and lobbying by constituents persuaded U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan to travel to Jonestown to investigate conditions there. Peoples Temple and Jonestown came to world attention on November 18, 1978 when Ryan, three news reporters and a Jonestown resident were murdered. In the late afternoon of that tragic day, Jim Jones assembled the residents of Jonestown in its central pavilion. There they were exhorted to drink a poison-laced punch. The further tragedy of Jonestown followed.

Peoples Temple at Jonestown showcases various attempts since 1978 to interpret and find meaning in the Jonestown community and the Jonestown tragedy through works of art, photography, sound, documentary film, theater, poetry, fiction and non-fiction texts. Highlighting these various works shows how the Peoples Temple movement of the 1960s and '70s and the Jonestown tragedy that ended it have informed and influenced artists working in a variety of media to interpret the events. The exhibit seeks to show that the Jonestown tragedy has been interpreted and perceived by artists and others in ways far different than has so often been portrayed in the media. The exhibit also focuses on the kinds of artistic works that use Jonestown as the point of departure for explorations that extend beyond the events themselves.

The intent of the exhibit is best summed up by the artist Terry Gordon, when speaking of her paintings: "I chose to focus on the “Agricultural Project” and on what a group of people built instead of what some of them eventually destroyed. I wanted to paint the life of the place instead of its death." As 86-year-old Pop Jackson said of his life in Jonestown, “I’m settin’ around here free this morning. Now, when it comes to Jonestown, I’m telling you it was the best place what ever was. I had never been to a place like this. It ain’t been took up and dried up and you take the best and I take the worst. I want Jonestown to be cared for because it cared for me.” To perceive of Jonestown in ways far different than the way the media portrays it is essential, "because the lessons we draw from Jonestown depend on what we think happened there." The tragedy at Jonestown was not Peoples Temple – it was the tragic end of Peoples Temple. As Paul Van de Carr writes, we perceive of Peoples Temple only as mass suicide “because it serves cultural functions. It reinforces our sanity over and against their depravity; it perversely entertains us; it allows us to substitute a cheap fascination for a serious grappling.” The exhibit is an effort to humanize the people of Jonestown, to offer different perspectives on the tragedy, and challenge simple explanations.

Works on display in the exhibit come from the Peoples Temple Collection in Special Collections, the collections of the Jonestown Institute in San Diego, and the collection of Jonestown survivor Laura Johnston Kohl. Special thanks to Dr. Rebecca Moore, Fielding M. McGehee III, Laura Johnston Kohl, the family of Nancy and Ronald Sines, and the artists Terry Gordon and Laura Baird, who made this exhibit possible. Many thanks as well to our graphic arts student assistant Katie Stapko, for her extraordinary assistance.

Peoples Temple at Jonestown: Interpretations of Jonestown in Art, Photography, Sound, Film, and Words will be on display throughout much of 2015.

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