A cabinet of wonders opens wide

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A cabinet of wonders opens wide
In the background, a case holds an umbrella that belonged to P.L. Travers, the author of "Mary Poppins," at “Treasures," a permanent exhibition at the New York Public Library's flagship branch, Dec. 20, 2021. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- The most exquisite holiday windows on Fifth Avenue might be inside the New York Public Library’s flagship building at the corner of 42nd Street. Walk up the stairs past the stone lions, through the marble entrance court and into the ornate Gottesman Hall, and you can peer into dramatically lit cases holding medieval illuminated manuscripts, a ballet slipper designed by Coco Chanel, the stuffed toys that inspired “Winnie-the-Pooh” and Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, among other prized items.

None of the objects are for sale. But in a way, they already belong to us. Or that’s the message behind “Treasures,” the library’s first permanent installation of highlights from its research collections.

The exhibition, supported by a $12 million gift from philanthropist Leonard Polonsky, is the culmination of more than three years of shopping the library’s epic closets, which hold more than 45 million manuscripts, rare books, prints, photographs, audio and film clips and other artifacts. Covering 4,000 years of history, it mixes big-ticket items (a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio) and who-knew delights, like Andy Warhol’s painting of a Studio 54 ticket (inscribed “To Truman,” as in Capote).

Originally, the idea was to display 125 items at a time, in keeping with the library’s 125th anniversary in 2020. “But we quickly blew through that,” Declan Kiely, the library’s director of special collections and exhibitions, said on a recent morning before a tour of the roughly 250-item display, which has drawn more than 75,000 visitors since it opened in September.

Sara Spink, the exhibition’s curatorial associate, recalled going into the library’s vaults during her first week on the job, to look at some of its cuneiform tablets. “The curator said, ‘Oh, by the way,’ and pulled out a copy of a roll call of Congress’ yea and nay votes on the 13th Amendment,” she said. “I was like, What?”

The exhibition is an expression of the library’s civic faith, underscored by the object that greets visitors as they step into the gallery: Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he mailed to a fellow Virginia delegate shortly after July 4, 1776, with underlining indicating passages (including a passionate denunciation of slavery) that had been cut from the final version.

Right behind it — at the center of the gallery, and the library building itself — is an oversized handwritten copy of the Bill of Rights, one of 14 that George Washington ordered made during the debate over ratification. It lists 12 amendments, rather than the 10 that were approved.

“This shows that history isn’t set in stone,” said Anthony Marx, the library’s president, who had popped down to show off a few items. “It’s something that’s always being debated and argued, even as it’s being imagined.”

The exhibition, which is free but requires timed admission tickets, includes cases dedicated to exploration, religion, performance, childhood, visual arts, social activism and other themes, whose contents will rotate regularly. There are striking juxtapositions and surprising sightlines, and objects that tell different stories depending on the angle you look from.

Look through a display of conductor Arturo Toscanini’s batons, suspended in space, and you catch a glimpse of a spotlighted case across the room holding “Political Prisoner,” a 1971 cedar sculpture by African American artist Elizabeth Catlett. From the front, the figure — a woman with a Pan-African flag cut into her torso — looks exhilarated, regal. From behind, you see that her hands are chained.

The library, Kiely said, is really a “collections of collections,” whose history is traced through the show. The core sections are heavy on treasures donated by 19th-century philanthropist James Lenox, such as an early 16th-century copper globe that includes one of the earliest cartographic representations of the Americas. (It is also one of only two surviving Renaissance or medieval maps with the inscription “Here be dragons.”) And about that Gutenberg Bible: The Morgan Library, a few blocks away, may have three copies, Kiely said with a laugh, but the New York Public Library’s, another Lenox gift, is “special,” since it was the first to come to America, in 1847.

There are also 1852 bronze busts of a Sudanese man and woman, believed to be the first items donated by Afro-Latino bibliophile Arturo Schomburg, whose personal collection became the foundation of the library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

At the core of the library’s collections is the written word, represented by items from those cuneiform tablets to modern manuscripts by Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Tom Wolfe and others. And of course there are books, both exquisite and homely.

In a section on faith, a 1791 Russian altar gospel in ornate, jewel-encrusted silver binding sits above a tiny, lantern-shaped 15th-century “girdle book,” which would have dangled from a monk’s belt. Tucked between the worn pages are tiny slips of paper marking particular prayers — medieval Post-it notes, Kiely said.

There are plenty of objects that show traces of the hand, as well as assaults from less exalted parts of the body. One solo case displays the desk where Charles Dickens likely wrote “Hard Times.” At a 1940 event, the story goes, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sat on it, destroying the original cane seat.

That broken chair underlines another unspoken theme of the exhibition: the contingency of survival. The first “test book” from Manhattan’s Emigrant Savings Bank, from 1850, is displayed open to a page showing mostly Irish names, along with detailed personal information (town of origin, children’s names, ship of arrival) that was used to verify an account holder’s identity — the analog version of today’s online security questions.

Similar records, Kiely said, were destroyed in the Irish Civil War in 1922, when the Four Courts in Dublin burned. “For Irish historians, this is the only record for people of those generations,” he said. “It’s all in here.”

In a display dedicated to childhood, an umbrella belonging to P.L. Travers, author of “Mary Poppins,” hangs, half open, above a 1920 issue of The Brownies’ Book, a magazine edited by African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois. (“Designed for all children,” the title page explains, “but especially for ours.”)

For all the show’s famous names, there are plenty of mysterious strangers. In the visual arts section, Kiely pointed out a personal favorite: a sketchbook of little-known 19th-century Japanese artist Ariyoshi Kondo, open to an exquisite tableau featuring a lobster, plus a half-finished butterfly that looks ready to fly off the page to flirt with Nabokov’s.

A final section illustrates holdings relating to New York City, from the first money printed here, from 1708, to Anna Louizos’ set model for the 2007 off-Broadway production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights.”

The library, many would say, is itself one of the city’s treasures. And exiting the gallery, it might be easy to miss a set of small brass keys that once opened the gate of the old Croton Reservoir, the huge aboveground water storage tank that was torn down in 1900 to make way for its building.

Spink recalled the curator who had casually pulled them out of a box. “She said, ‘Oh, you might be interested in this, too,’” Spink said. “Yes!”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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