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Special Report

A Million Manuscripts

His interests are wide, and his holdings reflect that. Among them are a transcript of Handel’s Messiah annotated by Beethoven; the coded instructions from the new American Congress to John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams for their negotiations with the British government to settle the terms for America’s independence; the original production drawings of “Plane Crazy,” the first (and silent) Mickey Mouse cartoon; “Steamboat Willie,” the first Mickey Mouse sound cartoon; the last will and testament of Walt Disney; and, his favorite, a decree by Pope Lucius III, dated 1183, instructing knights on their departure to the Holy Land for the Third Crusade.

Why, one wonders, did he open his museums in these unlikely places—in Buffalo, Duluth, Tacoma, and so on? Precisely because they are unlikely and so unable to give their citizens large, consistent doses of culture. By locating these cities on a map, one realizes that they are geographically evenly distributed. Buffalo, Jacksonville, Charleston, Shreveport, Newburgh, Tacoma, and Santa Barbara represent, more or less, the four corners of the U.S., while Duluth and Fort Wayne cover the heart of the country. Karpeles tried to open a museum in New York City, but it didn’t work. “We had the original draft of the Bill of Rights,” he said, “and only about seventy people came to see it. New Yorkers don’t go to see these things, because they know they always can. So we opened in Jacksonville, and five thousand people showed up.”

The interior of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Buffalo, at Porter Hall. The building was designated a City of Buffalo Historic Landmark in 1989. Credit: Julie Zolnowski McNally.
Designed to look like a medieval church both inside and out, the Porter Hall building was completed in 1911. It needed over $2 million in renovation (the first task was removing the pigeon droppings). Credit: Julie Zolnowski McNally.
In addition to its traveling exhibits of manuscripts, the Porter Hall museum has played host to the Buffalo Small Press Bookfair, fashion shoots, and weddings. Credit: Julie Zolnowski McNally.

The story of Tacoma is even more impressive. When he displayed that early version of the Bill of Rights in his museum there, the place was so crowded, he himself had to leave. “They were shoulder to shoulder in there, and I literally couldn’t move. I squeezed myself out of there, and drove away to a McDonald’s to collect myself. When I tried to drive back, I couldn’t get within six blocks of my own museum. There was a traffic jam, because everyone wanted to go.”

There are no permanent holdings in the museums. Each one has a rotating exhibit that travels from museum to museum about every four months. These exhibits are purposely kept small. “About 25 documents,” Karpeles said. “Any more than that and it’s impossible to take it all in.”

And what are they taking in? Well, here are a few of the offerings at Karpeles’ museums from September until the end of the year. At the Karpeles in Newburgh, an exhibit titled The Slave Trade focuses on the treaties for the abolition of slavery, as well as documents related to the Amistad Affair, a single page from Alex Haley’s Roots manuscript, and the Emancipation Proclamation. In Jacksonville, Milestones in Medicine highlights the manuscripts of William Harvey, Louis Pasteur, Francis Crick, and Clara Barton. In Tacoma, the mystery genre is uncovered in The Detective, The Detective Scholar, and the Spy, in which the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Ian Fleming are on display.

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Tacoma, Washington, features a Greco-Roman entrance and faces an arboretum and botanical conservatory. Courtesy of David Karpeles.
The exterior of Buffalo’s Porter Hall museum, formerly a methodist church. Buffalo has two Karpeles museums. Courtesy of David Karpeles.
A handsome 1921 neo-classical building in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, is home to one of the ten Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums. Courtesy of David Karpeles.

The buildings themselves are almost as impressive as the documents they house. To a one, they are striking and often historically significant. The Charleston museum, for example, makes one think of the Maison Carrée at Nîmes. “Yes!” responded Karpeles with gusto, “that’s right.” The interiors are elegantly designed and arranged.

“You must have hired specialists in museum design each time you opened a museum,” a reporter recently inquired. “No,” Karpeles said. “I designed all the interiors myself—for better or worse.” Better, one would say. You only have to view the interior of the Porter Hall Museum in Buffalo to confirm that impression. It’s stately and elegant, yet inviting. As a further example of his largesse, Karpeles allows legitimate organizations to use any of the spaces for free for events and fundraising. The Karpeles reach also extends beyond his ten museums. “We have 243 mini-museums,” he said. These are, basically, two- or three-case displays of excellent copies of the documents he owns that are permanently displayed in colleges and high schools across the country.

To return to the Buffalo story. Why two buildings? “Well,” Karpeles said, “the building we originally wanted wasn’t available when we decided to open a museum there. So we had to settle for the building with the open roof and all those pigeons. But years later it did become available, and I just decided to buy it anyway, even though this would mean we’d have two museums there. That’s proved to be a little tricky, because each museum has to have a different exhibit.

“But,” he added, like a boy in a candy shop unable to resist, “it was worth it.”

Richard Goodman’s new book, A New York Memoir, has just been published. He is also the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France and The Soul of Creative Writing.

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