A lock of Beethoven’s hair and Maya Angelou’s papers are among the treasures of the NYPL



The entrance to Treasures, a new exhibit at the Gottesman Hall Exhibition Gallery in NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. (photo by Max Touhey; courtesy NYPL)

If Manhattan were a treasure map, the “X” would mark the location of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, the imposing headquarters of the New York Public Library (NYPL). The building has always been something of a treasure house, housing many of the more than 46 million items that make up the library’s research collections. Today, 250 of the rarest objects in this vast repository, which also includes the NYPL Performing Arts Library and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, have been unearthed for the highly anticipated. Treasures exhibition, to be discovered by anyone who walks through the doors of the library at the Gottesman Hall gallery.

“I’m not so much interested in what treasures are, but how things got to the library, and why we preserve them and give them access,” said exhibition curator Declan Kiely, director of special collections and NYPL exhibits, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “For me, it is an essential part of cultural heritage and memory.

In a display case, an original sign from a 1968 march for racial justice reads “Honor King!” End racism! (Photo by Max Touhey; courtesy NYPL)

He points to a sign saying “Honor King!” End racism! »In bold black characters. It was carried by Thomas Leach, one of 42,000 participants in the April 8 march organized four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

“It entered the collection because the son of the man who held this sign has kept it for decades. It became important to him, and he gave it to his son, and his son gave it to the Schomburg Center, ”Kiely said. “It’s an example, to me, of something that begins life as something to use for a day, for a few hours, to make a point. And it is now a treasure.

Visitors admire a bronze model of Augusta Savage’s sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. (photo by Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic)

The show is a gold mine of founding documents and masterpieces selectively selected from 4000 years of human activity: Babylonian tablets inscribed in cuneiform script, the oldest writing system; a handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, with annotations by Thomas Jefferson; one of Shakespeare’s earliest folios; and a model of Augusta Savage’s sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which was destroyed after its presentation at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Bill Simpson, a former professor who browsed the show with his wife last Friday, was particularly impressed with the first impression of the King James Bible, the most published book in English.

“I’ve never seen an original, and it was mind-blowing how tall he was. [It] made me think how hard that would have been to use, ”he told Hyperallergic. “The library is probably the only place in the United States that I know of that would store and keep track of this stuff, things so interesting for centuries of intellectual history, and I find it fascinating.”

In a section titled “The Written Word”, visitors can see ancient cuneiform tablets. (photo by Max Touhey; courtesy NYPL)

Yet some of the most captivating moments on this show aren’t examples of raw material manuals, at least not in the traditional sense. There’s Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, on display in a glass case alongside a letter from her husband Leonard Woolf to her lover Vita Sackville-West, just days after Woolf drowned in the River Ouse behind their home in Sussex.

Virginia Woolf’s walking stick displayed with a letter from her husband and a handwritten draft. (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

“Leonard is talking about finding this walking stick in the river, and it’s the first indication that something is wrong,” Kiely says. “He realizes that it was not an accident, that she committed suicide. I think seeing the letter and the cane together like this is both scary and exciting because it completely recreates that moment in history.

Asked about the method used by the library to amass such a mixture of objects, Kiely describes the process as “a mixture of accident and deliberation”. NYPL already had the world’s largest holdings of Woolf manuscripts and was looking for additional materials when it acquired the wooden cane at auction in the early 2000s; other items came as part of the papers and archives kept in the library’s collection, such as that of American choreographer Jerome Robbins, the namesake of the library’s Dance division.

A showcase emphasizes the performing arts, featuring Jerome Robbins’ diaries, Serge Lifar’s ballet shoe painted by Coco Chanel, and more. (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

A showcase dedicated to the performing arts displays Robbins’ hand-drawn diaries. Uniquely produced on Japanese accordion folding notebooks, Kiely explained, “They are colorful and they are beautiful, but they also functioned as a kind of self-therapy, an outlet.”

“They poignantly recorded how tortured he was, as a living homosexual at that time, and his loneliness,” he added. “These are essential documents for a biographer, but they are also incredible three-dimensional objects.”

Extract I know why the caged bird is singing by Maya Angelou (copyright © 1969 and renewed in 1997 by Maya Angelou; courtesy of Random House)

Throughout the exhibition, the staff and the diary are recurring motifs. There is something particularly captivating about glimpsing intimate moments in the lives of eminent personalities. An unpublished chapter of Malcolm X’s autobiography, shown with his briefcase – previously in private hands and never before seen by the public – provides “one-off contact” with the civil rights activist, Kiely says. In the same vein, a handwritten and scribbled page of a draft of the historical book by Maya Angelou I know why the caged bird is singing (1969).

“What I like is that it’s right on that yellow notepad,” Kiely notes. “These books have been a huge influence, they change lives, but they just started with someone sitting down with a ballpoint pen sketching out some thoughts.”

An 1810 “doll box” contains 12 mini picture books, a letter bag and a pincushion to discipline the dolls. (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

Books and works of art, memorabilia and ephemera, and even a lock of Beethoven’s hair are all grouped in separate displays under thematic categories. ‘Childhood’ includes a ‘doll box’, eerie 19th century chests containing a pincushion and pins to punish her ill-behaved toys, while ‘Explorations’ is a broader classification that includes both the first photograph of the moon and a medieval cookbook, the library’s oldest manuscript written in English. Another showcase, entitled “Belief”, contains works as diverse as Haitian voodoo vèvè flag, a 2nd century Koran and a Jew mahzor with richly lit panels.

A view of Treasures with the “Belief” window on the right. (photo by Max Touhey; courtesy NYPL)

Sometimes these pairings are unexpected and thought-provoking, making unlikely connections between distant time and space.

“I wouldn’t put a topless woman next to a prayer book,” said Héctor Jiménez, a visitor to the show, pointing to the mermaid-like figure on the vèvè flag. “It’s not something most religions would allow. But overall I’m a huge fan. This is us: the Wizard of Oz next to Mary Poppins, Dickens, Shakespeare, Borges and the staff of Virginia Woolf.

A Norman Lewis painting, a Matisse print and Kikuji Kawada’s photo book “Chizu (The Map). “(Author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

Treasures invites critical observations like that of Jiménez. Some of the exhibits have immediate visual impact, in particular a selection from the library’s impressive collection of visual arts – paintings by Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden; photographs by Diane Arbus and Anna Atkins; prints by Edward Hopper and Édouard Manet, among many others. At the back of the gallery, an edition of Albrecht Dürer’s monumental “Triumphal Arch”, made up of over 200 individual woodcuts to line the walls of palaces during the reign of the Germanic Roman Emperor Maximilian, dominates visitors and visibly takes their breath away.

Monumental woodcut “Arc de Triomphe” by Albrecht Dürer (1517/1799) (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

“I wanted the exhibit to raise awareness that the library has great works of art,” says Kiely. “And when I show people Dürer’s ‘Arc de Triomphe’, I remind them that we are now exposed in one minute of our lives to more man-made images than a person living at that time, in the 16th or 15th century, would not have seen any. throughout their life. You have to put yourself for a second in the time frame and the state of mind and the visual experience of their reality.

Most temporary exhibitions in museums and institutions last a few months, perhaps a year. But NYPL will keep Treasures on display for 75 years, Kiely says, with a selection of “evolving and rotating” objects – and subtle changes.

“Over the next few years, we will be turning the pages of the Declaration every six months,” he adds, eyes twinkling. “We will turn the pages of Gutenberg’s Bible. Etc. “

Treasures is on view at the New York Public Library’s Gottesman Hall Exhibition Gallery (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, Manhattan).

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