Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration is a digital exhibition that interrogates the relations between literary and lived utopias, and between utopian visions and their frequently dystopian manifestations. It constellates a number of utopian aspirations to consider what we can learn from often revolutionary perspectives that also leave significant gaps in their thinking and expression. This work comes out of an extensive collaboration between the “Utopias: Literature, Technology, Archives” graduate seminar in the Department of English, taught by J. Ashley Foster, and the Special Collections team in the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno. Here, we contextualize the holdings of Special Collections, specifically the Topolobampo Collection, within the larger discourse of a global sampling of literary and lived utopias to interrogate questions of social justice, human rights, and the creation of a more sustainable, egalitarian international community of ethical citizens.

The Topolobampo Collection tells the story of a failed colony that was based on principles many consider utopian at Topolobampo Bay in Sinaloa, Mexico in the last decade of the 19th century. Established in 1886, the colony was a result of Albert K. Owen’s idealistic desire to create a new society that provided housing and eradicated poverty for all. Owen’s dreams were ambitious and extensive, and his colony involved the hope of building a transcontinental, international railroad through the United States and Mexico while also resettling hundreds of families in what came to be called “Pacific City,” the site of an ideal society that would act as a port to Asia at the terminus of the railway.

The multimodal nature of this exhibition allows the visitor to engage in a number of ways. This website accompanies a material exhibition in the Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno that runs from February 22, 2019-July 26, 2019. In the standing exhibition, we display archival items from the Topolobampo collection amidst literature, art, and cultural ephemera from around the world. In the digital exhibition of Surveying Utopias, students have curated documents and added their own analysis in multiple exhibit pages, bringing the archives into the digital realm, rendering a sampling of our holdings at Fresno State accessible to a global audience. We use Topolobampo as a point of departure to enter into ongoing discussions within politics, literature, and the field of Utopian Studies. These exhibitions, both in their standing and digital forms, explore definitions of utopia, call into question the value or benefit of utopic thinking, interrogate the relations among utopia and imperialism, class, race, and gender, and think about what it might take to create a more equitable world.

In sum, our course of study has lead us to conclude that utopia is not a particular vision, particular place, or a particular set of definitions, but a critical and creative process that occurs across the globe in different times and places and allows us to create alternatives and imaginatively formulate more ideal worlds. Utopia is shadowed by dystopia, and the threat of dystopia means that we must reformulate and keep dreaming. It is in this questioning, in this critique, that we can find hope. As Lyman Tower Sargent writes in “Choosing Utopia”: “Usually what we accomplish is less than we desired, and, after a rest, we dream again, achieve something, and dream again.” Choosing utopia always already implies an openness because it is on the individual reader, participant, and viewer to decide exactly what “utopia” means to them, what dream of change they seek to manifest. As the exhibition shows, there are multiple versions of utopia. The failure of utopia calls for more utopic thinking, and in this way, utopia is a process, a cycle, and a dream constantly deferred, but it is a struggle that is necessary.