If Manhattan were a treasure map, “X” would mark the spot at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, the imposing headquarters of the New York Public Library (NYPL). The building has always been something of a trove, housing many of the more than 46 million items that make up the library’s research collections. Now, 250 of the rarest objects from this sprawling repository, which also includes NYPL’s Library for the Performing Arts and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, have been unearthed for the long-awaited Treasures exhibition, discoverable to anyone who walks through the library’s doors to 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 provide access to them,” said the show’s curator Declan Kiely, NYPL’s Director of Special Collections and Exhibitions, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “For me, it’s an essential part of cultural heritage and memory.”
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He points to a placard that reads “Honor King! End Racism!” in bold black letters. It was carried by Thomas Leach, one of 42,000 participants of the April 8 march organized four days after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
“That came into the collection because the son of the man who held that placard 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 one example, to me, of something that starts its life as a thing to be used for one day, for a few hours, to make a point. And it’s now a treasure.”
The show is a gold mine of foundational documents and masterpieces selectively culled from 4,000 years of human activity: Babylonian tablets inscribed in cuneiform script, the most ancient writing system; a handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, complete with Thomas Jefferson’s annotations; one of Shakespeare’s first folios; and a maquette of Augusta Savage’s sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was destroyed after its presentation in the 1939 World’s Fair.
Bill Simpson, a former professor who was perusing the show with his wife last Friday, was especially taken by the first printing of the King James Bible — the most widely published book in the English language.
“I’ve never seen an original of it, and it was stunning to see how large it was. [It] made me think how awkward it would have been to use,” he told Hyperallergic. “The library is probably the only place in the US that I know that would store and keep track of stuff like this, things that are so interesting for centuries of intellectual history, and I find that fascinating.”
Yet, some of the most gripping moments in this show are not textbook examples of primary materials, at least not in the traditional sense. There is Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, displayed in a glass vitrine next to a letter from her husband Leonard Woolf to her lover Vita Sackville-West, just days after Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse behind their home in Sussex.
“Leonard talks about finding that walking stick in the river, and that is the first indication that something’s wrong,” says Kiely. “He correctly realizes that this is not an accident, that she’s killed herself. I think seeing the letter and the cane together like that is both chilling and thrilling, because it completely recreates that moment in history.”
When asked about the library’s method for amassing such a miscellany of objects, Kiely describes the process as “a mixture of accident and deliberation.” NYPL already had the world’s largest holdings of Woolf’s manuscripts and was on the lookout for additional materials when it acquired the wooden cane at auction in the early 2000s; other items came as part of papers and archives held in the library’s collection, like that of American choreographer Jerome Robbins, the namesake of the library’s Dance Division.
A vitrine dedicated to the performing arts flaunts Robbins’s hand-drawn diaries. Uniquely produced on Japanese accordion foldout notebooks, Kiely explained, “they’re colorful and they’re beautiful, but they also functioned as a kind of self-therapy, an outlet.”
“They poignantly recorded how tortured he was, as a gay man living at that time, and his loneliness,” he added. “They are essential documents for a biographer, but they’re amazing three-dimensional items as well.”
Throughout the exhibition, the personal and the diaristic are recurring motifs. There is something particularly captivating about glimpsing intimate moments from the lives of eminent figures. An unpublished chapter from Malcolm X’s autobiography, shown along with his briefcase — previously in private hands and never before seen by the public — provides “unmediated contact” with the civil rights activist, Kiely says. In a similar vein is a handwritten, doodled page from a draft of Maya Angelou’s landmark book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).
“What I love about it is that it’s just on this yellow legal pad,” Kiely notes. “These books have had tremendous influence, they change lives, but they started out just with someone sitting down with a ballpoint pen sketching some thoughts.”
Books and artwork, mementos and ephemera, and even a lock of Beethoven’s hair are all grouped in distinct displays under thematic categories. “Childhood” features a “doll’s casket,” eerie 19th-century chests storing a pincushion and pins to punish one’s badly-behaved toys, while “Explorations” is a larger classification that includes both the earliest photograph of the moon and a medieval recipe book, the library’s oldest manuscript written in English. Another vitrine, titled “Belief,” holds works as diverse as a Haitian Vodou vèvè flag, a second-century Qur’an, and a Jewish mahzor with richly illuminated panels.
Sometimes these pairings are unexpected and thought-provoking, drawing unlikely connections between the temporally and spatially distant.
“I wouldn’t put a bare-breasted woman next to a prayer book,” said Héctor Jiménez, a visitor to the show, pointing to the mermaid-like figure on the sequined vèvè flag. “That’s not something most religions would allow. But overall, I’m a big fan. This is us: the Wizard of Oz next to Mary Poppins, Dickens, Shakespeare, Borges, and Virginia Woolf’s stick.”
Treasures invites critical observations like Jiménez’s. Certain objects in the show have an immediate visual impact, especially a selection of the library’s impressive visual arts collection — paintings by Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden; photographs by Diane Arbus and Anna Atkins; prints by Edward Hopper and Édouard Manet, among so many others. Toward the back of the gallery, an edition of Albrecht Dürer’s monumental “Triumphal Arch,” composed of over 200 individual woodcut prints to paper the walls of palaces under Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian’s reign, towers above visitors and visibly takes their breath away.
“I wanted the exhibition to raise awareness that the library does have great artworks,” Kiely says. “And when I show people Dürer’s ‘Triumphal Arch,’ I remind them that we now are 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 have seen in their entire lifetime. You have to put yourself for a second in the time frame and the mindset and the visual experience of their reality.”
Most temporary exhibitions in museums and institutions are up for a couple of months, maybe a year. But NYPL will keep Treasures on view for 75 years, Kiely says, with “an evolving and revolving” selection of objects — and subtle switch-ups.
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“For the next few years, we’ll turn the pages of the Declaration every six months,” he adds, his eyes twinkling. “We’ll turn the pages of the Gutenberg Bible. And so on.”
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).