Middle English Manuscript on Exhibit for Huntington Library’s Centennial
San Marino, CA — As part of its yearlong Centennial Celebration, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens presents a two-part exhibition that invites visitors to consider the continued relevance of the Library's role in documenting the human experience.
The more than 100 items in "What Now: Collecting for the Library in the 21st Century" highlight the power of objects to reveal the past and construct new histories and narratives. Part 1 of "What Now" will run from Oct. 19, 2019 to Feb. 17, 2020, and Part 2 from May 2 to Aug. 24, 2020, in the West Hall of the Library building.
The carefully chosen materials in "What Now" provide a window into the ever-growing cultural heritage available at The Huntington and confirm the Library's significance as a major destination for knowledge making and intellectual discovery in the 21st century. New resources speak to contemporary areas of scholarly inquiry, including environmental history, borderlands studies, radicalism and dissent, the human body, sensory experience, literary expression, military history, and material culture.
Among the oldest works on view will be a Middle English manuscript of one of the foundational texts of travel literature, "The Book of John Mandeville," from the second half of the 15th century. The most recent works on display will be large-scale archival inkjet botanical prints from 2009, created with a flatbed scanner by California artist Jane O'Neal. All works in the exhibition have been acquired by The Huntington in the 21st century.
"The objects in 'What Now' are curators' choices to reveal how The Huntington continues to expand its holdings for humanities scholarship," said Claudia Funke, Avery Chief Curator and Associate Director of Library Collections, and exhibition cocurator. "They also demonstrate the types of materials that we value as we seek to preserve documentary and artistic creation for future generations."
Visitors are encouraged—through the juxtaposition of books, manuscripts, maps, prints, and photographs—to explore and reconceptualize existing strengths across the Library's core subjects and geographies, which include North America, the Pacific Rim, the Atlantic World, and Europe.
Commonalities in the wide array of items to be shown suggested the eight themes into which exhibition objects are organized. These, in turn, logically matched up to form four pairs: "Love and Conflict," "Numbers and Secrets," "Landscape and Migrations," and "Materiality and Process." "Objects from different locations and times are placed in conversation within and across these broad and fundamental themes, which are intended to be provocative and not determinative or restrictive," noted Funke.
"Love" includes an example from the Christopher Isherwood papers, a 1961 letter from Isherwood to his partner, Don Bachardy, that illuminates the relationship of an openly gay artist couple years before the Stonewall uprising. The theme also features fancy 19th-century valentines created by the firm of female entrepreneur Esther Howland, from the Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera. Among the objects in "Conflict" are a 1774 letter from a father scolding his son for selling the cargo of a brig that never made it to the Boston Tea Party and a pink sheet of angry telephone messages for the first Latina member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Gloria Molina, regarding her opposition to Proposition 187, which affected undocumented immigrants.
"Numbers" features invoices, account books, and other documents that address researcher interest in numeracy, quantification, and past economies, such as a ledger belonging to social reformer Susan B. Anthony that tallies expenses in preparation for the Ninth Woman's Rights Convention in 1859. An educational item in the Jay T. Last Collection of Graphic Arts and Social History, a pull-down classroom chart, indicates how 19th-century teachers used colorful graphics, diagrams, and pictures of familiar objects to engage students with the basics of arithmetic.
A lighthearted example in "Secrets" is one of The Huntington's 42 English paper fans with substantial printed text, "The Ladies Telegraph" from 1798, with words explaining how to use it to signal secret messages across a room. Entertaining in a different way are the notes of aerospace engineer Albert Hibbs, which reveal his secret calculations for winning a fortune at roulette in Nevada.
The Library's collecting as displayed in "Landscape" complements The Huntington's renowned gardens. Human impact on Los Angeles environs is shown in a 1920s photographic panorama of flower fields in Hollywood, from the recently acquired Arthur Ito papers, and in a grittier one of the Venice oil fields from the Ernest Marquez Photograph Collection. A notebook by African American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler records the bleak view from the window of a Greyhound bus as it passes through inland California.
Human movement across lands and cultures is reflected in "Migrations," which includes author Paul Theroux's journal for his classic book "The Great Railway Bazaar." Other materials speak to current interests in transnational studies. The 20th-century immigrant experience is documented through both visual and textual materials, including neon studies made in 1936–37 for buildings in LA's New Chinatown owned by prominent immigration attorney You Chung Hong.
The increasingly virtual world of creation and expression has brought renewed interest in the material aspects of the physical resources that the Library collects. "Materiality" includes such contrasting items as an original floor tile from Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre and a 1905 anatomical flap book that details the female human body and was coedited by a female physician.
"Process" highlights the actions and operations that go into creating. The 1926 sale agreement between Ignacio Lozano and the Mergenthaler Linotype Company records the technological acquisition that enabled La Opinión, one of the most important Spanish-language newspapers in the United States. A late 19th-century volume from the Library's important holdings related to chromatics, "The Practical Ostrich Feather Dyer," details the steps in fashioning dyed feathers for the millinery trade at the height of their popularity.
"'What Now' will be quite different from what you see in the Library's main exhibition hall of treasures," said Erin Chase, assistant curator of architecture and photography, and exhibition cocurator. "Many of the works are modest objects, yet they present a range of voices and perspectives across time and place. They aren't Chaucer, Audubon, or the Gutenberg Bible, but they, too, tell important stories and provide the texture and diversity essential to the historical record."