Huntington Library reopens with a refreshing familiarity

Visitors flock to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino each year by the hundreds of thousands, drawn by works of European and American art spanning centuries, by expansive gardens renowned for their beauty and breadth — and by what, with good reason, comes first in the name of this world-class, collections-based institution: the library.

The Huntington's holdings of manuscripts, books, photographs and ephemera — nearly 9 million items in total, some of the oldest dating back to the 11th century — attract countless researchers, scholars, authors, students and others interested in American and British literature, art, history and science.

The reopening of the Library's Main Exhibition Hall to the public on Saturday, Nov. 9, after a 17-month closure for its first major renovation and re-imagining since the 1970s, gave visitors a fresh perspective on the collections in an innovative new permanent installation, “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library.”

Based on 12 iconic items, the installation is structured around discrete display sections with such titles as “A Civil War Letter,” “A Vote for Women,” “A Portrait of California” and “A Founding Document.”

Among the dozen “anchor” items: the illuminated manuscript of Chaucer's “The Canterbury Tales” (“A Beautiful Manuscript”), part of founder Henry E. Huntington's headline-making, million-dollar acquisition of the Earl of Ellesmere's entire Bridgewater House library in 1917; the 15th century Gutenberg Bible on vellum (“A Landmark in Printing”), Shakespeare's collected plays, First Folio edition; and “A Huge Book of Birds,” John James Audubon's 19th-century book, “The Birds of America,” with life-size illustrations.

“What we tried to do is build a story around each of these sections,” said David S. Zeidberg, Avery director of the library, during a press preview of the installation. Each is a “mini exhibition in its own right,” he said.

The 12 key items are accompanied by related peripheral materials that include what Zeidberg called “meanwhiles” — as in “meanwhile, this was happening” — and by a first-time use of iPad and audio interactives to provide a vigorous sense of story, allowing visitors to see “how those singular things happened in the context of a wider world,” Zeidberg said.

“A Book of Plays by a Genius” encompasses other materials contemporary to Shakespeare's era, audio excerpts from “Hamlet” and a comparison of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy between the 1603 and 1604 “Hamlet” quartos, as well as a real-life account of an ill-fated sea voyage that may have inspired Shakespeare to write “The Tempest.”

Displayed with the Gutenberg Bible, Zeidberg noted, “we have other works that describe the spread of knowledge as the result of the printing press”; in the section called “A Founding Document,” a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed as a broadside in 1776, is accompanied by items related to the American Revolution, juxtaposed with materials from California's Mission Period.

Under “A Draft of a Novel,” the sight of Jack London's “White Fang” manuscript is somewhat eclipsed by what is beside it: a carbonized square pile that was once the author's draft of “The Sea-Wolf.” Stored for safety in a “flame-proof” bank vault in San Francisco, it burned in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake there. London's photographs and first-hand account of the devastation are part of the fascinating display.

The challenge of selecting approximately 150 items out of millions for the new installation fell to Zeidberg, in consultation with the library's 14 collections' curators, three of whom worked directly on the project: Sara S. “Sue” Hodson (literary manuscripts), Daniel Lewis (history of science, medicine and technology) and Jennifer Watts (photographs).

The library's $2.5-million renovation project included architectural restoration based on the 1920 Myron Hunt Beaux Arts building's original interior and exterior appearance, as well as infrastructure repairs to the 3,456-square-foot Main Exhibition Hall, now featuring replicas of the original long-stemmed plaster chandeliers, rediscovered marble-and-cork floors concealed for 40-odd years under carpeting, and special lighting of the balcony-level glass-fronted bookcases.

“One of the early important things to me was opening up the hall, with the signage to help people understand the options,” said Karina White, senior exhibition designer and project manager. “The sections are chronological, but you can also just move from one to another and each section doesn't rely on your having seen something before and after.”

Changing the shape and configuration of the display cases was important, too, White said, to “make them as intimate as possible. Before, we had these large towers, which were pretty impressive in a way, but you couldn't really get close to things.”

Because conservation is an issue, some items related to each anchor piece on display will be rotated out every four to six months or more, depending upon their fragility. Substituted works will “be representative of those same stories that we're trying to tell,” Zeidberg said.

Meanwhile, across from the hall and the reconceived foyer, the newly opened Trustees Room affords visitors a sense of the scope of the library's collections, with examples of recent acquisitions, books by scholars based on research at the library and comfortable seating to invite browsing.

“I think in the past when people came here and went through the hall,” Zeidberg said, “they had no idea that this was a vital, independent research library, probably one of the leading independent research libraries in the country.”

The most dramatic — and mesmerizing — example of the library's immediacy and vitality stands in the middle of the room, where video projections on the surface of a long table show the hands of people engaging in different kinds of research and restoration: handling documents, repairing a torn manuscript, unspooling microfilm, bar-coding a reference book, opening miniature books.

Created by Kate Lain, the Huntington's new media developer, these projections of 90 separate activities run in a 65-minute loop. Watch long enough and you might catch a glimpse of the playful object included as an inside joke.

What: The Huntington Library

Where: 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino.

When: Open Wednesday through Monday.

More info: (626) 405-2100,

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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