Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times
The Library’s renovated Main Exhibition Hall reopens with a dynamic new permanent installation in a beautifully restored space
Shakespeare, say hello to Galileo. Jack London, meet John Muir. After a year-long makeover, many familiar names and well-known works are back on display in the Library’s Main Exhibition Hall. But they’re having a whole new conversation.
The new permanent installation, titled “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library,” features some 150 rare objects grouped thematically around 12 key works, prompting visitors to make fresh connections and to consider each item in a wider context. The goal is to provide unexpected juxtapositions and new insights into the collections, and into history itself.
For example, the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, published in 1623, is displayed alongside books that inspired the Bard and rare items that reflect the world he lived in—items as diverse as the writings of Galileo, accounts of British colonization of the New World, and an Elizabethan woman’s shopping list. A letter from Abraham Lincoln to one of his wartime generals is accompanied by other Civil War materials, and also by an extraordinary group of rare photographs documenting two other major events that occurred in the United States during the war: the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 and the preservation of Yosemite as a wilderness area in 1864.
Additional thematic groupings are anchored by familiar treasures such as the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Gutenberg Bible, and Audubon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America. Others are centered around rarities that are less well-known to visitors, including a 16th-century map of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (the present-day site of Mexico City) from a published account by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, and a letter written by Susan B. Anthony to fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton after Anthony boldly cast an illegal vote in the presidential election of 1872.
One key manuscript in the exhibition is from a recently acquired collection, and it has never previously been on view. It is a Chinese “coaching paper,” written circa 1930, used by an immigrant to prepare for U.S. government questions on entering the country. This rare scroll comes from the papers of immigration lawyer You Chung Hong, who in 1923 became the first Chinese American admitted to the California bar.
A special “behind the scenes” section offers a multimedia look at day-to-day Library activities such as research and conservation, geared toward enhancing the public’s appreciation of how The Huntington’s rare treasures are cared for and how they are used by scholars.
Renovations to the Exhibition Hall itself—a space that first opened in 1920—provide a spectacular “new” setting for the treasures while reflecting the building’s historic past. Among the most dramatic changes is the restoration of the original marble and cork floor, which had been hidden under carpet for the better part of 40 years. Three dramatic chandeliers have been fabricated based on archival photographs of the originals (and updated with state-of-the-art LED lighting) to evoke the space as it looked in Henry Huntington’s day. The building’s exterior and surrounding landscape have received some much needed attention, as well, including conservation of the statuary, stone vases, and fountain.