Huntington Library’s Renovated Rare Books Exhibit Space to Reopen November 9

SAN MARINO, Calif.—The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens will reopen the Main Exhibition Hall of its historic Library building Nov. 9 with a new, dynamic permanent exhibition designed to invigorate visitors’ sense of connection to history and literature and to highlight the significance and uses of the Library’s incomparable collections of historical materials.

“None of these great works were created in a vacuum,” said Huntington President Steven S. Koblik, “and so we want to make sure we contextualize them appropriately, especially for those who might be more inclined these days to go online and spend their time in the digital realm. Here’s an opportunity to spark their interest in the real source materials and engage them around why they matter.”

The Huntington’s Library is one of the largest and most complete independent research libraries in the United States in its fields of specialization in the areas of British and American history and literature. The new permanent installation, titled “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library,” will spotlight 12 key works in vignettes organized chronologically. Major items on display include the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio, Audubon’s Birds of America, and Henry David Thoreau’s manuscript of Walden. The exhibition will hold some 150 objects representing the Library’s growing collection, now numbering about 9 million items. Each vignette will incorporate other rare works to reflect the time and place, prompting visitors to make connections and consider a wider context. The goal is to provide unexpected juxtapositions and new insights into the collections, and into history itself.

For example, a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, published in 1623, will be displayed alongside books that inspired him, works by his contemporaries, and rare items that reflect the world he lived in—from the British colonization of the New World to the writings of Galileo.

An 1863 letter by President Abraham Lincoln to Gen. David Hunter in which the president emphasizes his support for African American troops will anchor one of the vignettes. It will be displayed alongside photographs from the Civil War, a signed statement from African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass urging the president and the Union to “Unchain that black hand!,” and an astonishing group of items that show two other major events in the United States during the Civil War—the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 and the preservation of Yosemite as a wilderness area in 1864. To illustrate these simultaneous developments, the vignettes will feature rare and extraordinary photographs, including images of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins and the construction of the transcontinental railroad taken by Alfred Hart.

In another section, the Library will showcase letters and materials related to suffragist Susan B. Anthony, including a remarkable record of her court trial for voting illegally in 1872, displayed alongside a letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton describing Anthony’s vote: “Well I have been & gone & done it!!” These objects will be showcased alongside other materials of the late 19th century, including illustrations and photographs documenting expeditions in the western United States (where, in many cases, women were granted the vote before the rest of the country), as well as works by Mark Twain, who was doing his best writing during this period.

The works on view will represent the strengths of the Library’s collection: British and American history, literature, and art, and the history of science stretching from the 11th century to the present.

The Main Exhibition Hall has been closed for renovation since June 2012. Of the items previously displayed, only the Gutenberg Bible is currently on view—in the Thornton Portrait Gallery of the Huntington Art Gallery.

Designed principally by architect Myron Hunt (1868-1952) for founder Henry E. Huntington, and first opened in 1920, the Main Exhibition Hall served as a reading room for scholars until 1931, when a new reading room was constructed, and since has served exclusively as a gallery. The renovation project has included updating the infrastructure, along with restoring and repairing some of the interior and exterior architecture. For example, three dramatic chandeliers composed of plaster that once hung from the ceiling have been refabricated and will be installed to evoke the space as it looked when it opened in 1920. The cork and marble floors, hidden under carpet for the better part of 40 years, have been revealed and refinished, another feature of the project that focuses, in part, on historic preservation.

But the most dramatic aspect of the $2.5 million undertaking has arguably been the development of the new exhibition.

“The point of the new installation is to tell stories, and tell them well,” said David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library. “The intention is to highlight selected works in a concise display that won’t overwhelm, but rather delight and profoundly inspire people again and again.”

The new installation will include a special “Behind the Scenes” section, presenting a look at the activities of the Huntington Library today. The display will be rooted in the importance of original materials and cover the topics of collecting, acquisitions, conservation, and research through videos, images, and original materials. This section will include a selection of books written by researchers who have used Huntington Library materials in their scholarship.

The exhibition is being designed by Karina White with Gordon Chun Design, (based in Berkeley, Calif.), who worked together on The Huntington’s award-winning permanent exhibitions “Plants are Up to Something” in The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science and “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” in Dibner Hall of the History of Science, which adjoins the Library’s Main Hall.  

About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at huntington.org.

Visitor information

The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It is open to the public Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission on weekdays: $20 adults, $15 seniors (65+), $12 students (ages 12-18 or with full-time student I.D.), $8 youth (ages 5-11), free for children under 5. Group rate, $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission on weekends: $23 adults, $18 seniors, $13 students, $8 youth, free for children under 5. Group rate, $14 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission is free to all visitors with advance tickets on the first Thursday of each month. Information: 626-405-2100 or huntington.org.

Auction Guide