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Newly renovated and reinstalled historic library at the Huntington opens to the public
Library Main Exhibition Hall at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, renovated and installed with the new exhibition "Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library." Photo: Tim Street-Porter.

SAN MARINO, CA.- The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens reopens the Main Exhibition Hall of its historic library building to the public tomorrow after a 17-month-long reinstallation and renovation project with a new, dynamic permanent exhibition. “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library” is 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 was 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.

“Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library”
The Huntington’s library is one of the largest and most in-depth independent research libraries in the United States in its fields of specialization: British and American history, literature, art, and the history of science stretching from the 11th century to the present. The new permanent installation in the Main Exhibition Hall of the institution’s original library building, “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times,” highlights about 150 objects from the library’s collection, which currently numbers nearly 9 million items. The exhibition is organized around 12 key objects, each anchoring a section. Major items on display include the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Gutenberg Bible, Shake­speare’s First Folio, John James Audubon’s Birds of America, and Henry David Thoreau’s manuscript of Walden.

Each section in the exhibition incorporates other rare works to reflect the key item’s 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, is displayed in a section called “A Book of Plays by a Genius” alongside books that inspired Shakespeare, 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 anchors the section called “A Civil War Letter.” It is 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 a surprising 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 exhibition sections feature rare and extraordinary photographs, including images of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins and the route of the transcontinental railroad taken by Andrew Russell.

In another section, “A Vote for Women,” the exhibition showcases 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 are 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 point of the new installation is to tell stories around each of the key works, rather than have them stand alone outside of the context in which they were created,” said David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library. “The intention is to ‘re-humanize’ iconic works in a thought-provoking display that will delight and inspire the visitor.”

Audio and interactive components enhance visitors’ engagement with the primary historic materials in the exhibition. There is a recording of The Canterbury Tales read in both Middle English (the language in which the work was written) and in Modern English; digital maps of the New World showing changing outlines of the Americas, Asia, and Africa over time; and an iPad display allowing visitors to zoom in on J. Goldsborough Bruff’s drawings of the California Gold Rush, among other interpretive stations, including a stereoscope featuring some of the earliest photographic images of Yosemite.

“The Library Today”
A room adjacent to the Main Exhibition Hall, previously closed to the public, now offers a complementary educational display, “The Library Today.” This look behind the scenes at the activities of the Huntington’s library is rooted in the importance of original materials and covers the topics of collecting, acquisitions, conservation, and research through videos, images, and original materials. “The Library Today” also includes a selection of books written by researchers who have used Huntington Library materials in their scholarship.

Renovating the Original Library Building
The original library building at The Huntington was designed by architect Myron Hunt (1868–1952) for founder Henry E. Huntington and first opened in 1920. The Main Exhibition Hall in the building served as a reading room for scholars until 1931, when a new reading room was constructed, and since has served exclusively as a gallery.

As part of ongoing conservation and renovation of historic structures at The Huntington (following similar projects at the Huntington Art Gallery, the Japanese Garden, and the Mausoleum), the institution undertook a project to renovate and redesign the Main Exhibition Hall that highlights The Huntington’s library collections.

The renovation project 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 were refabricated and installed to evoke the space as it looked when it opened in 1920. The hall’s cork and marble floors, hidden under carpet for the better part of 40 years, were 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.

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