IIT’S A elegant desk, if slightly worn (see photo below). Carved in mahogany, it has two drawers and a wide writing slope, and is accompanied by a simple wooden chair. The desk can be considered trivial, except that it is one of the desks Charles Dickens wrote “Great Expectations” on in his country house in Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. As a result, this is a highlight of “Treasures”, a new permanent exhibition at the New York Public Library (NYPL) which presents for the first time to the public dozens of objects of historical importance from its archives. After years of planning and delays induced by the pandemic, the show opened on September 24.
The Dickens office crossed the Atlantic in the 19th century. It was purchased by Henry and Albert Berg, brothers whose family had emigrated from Hungary to New York in 1862. They grew up to be literate enthusiasts as well as pioneer physicians at Mount Sinai Hospital, and amassed a collection of 3,500 manuscripts and first editions before by donating them to NYPL in 1940. Their records include several other objects from Dickens, including a letter opener made from the paw of his beloved cat and his personal copy of “A Christmas Carol” from 1849, which he used for readings. public. It is annotated with reminders and staging: “sulky grunt” for Scrooge, “childish tremor” for Tiny Tim.
The works exhibited in “Treasures” are grouped according to themes such as “Beginnings” and “Explorations”. The library acquired the papers from Maya Angelou in 2010 and, included in a section titled “Fortitude”, is the manuscript of her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969). The carefully written page on display describes the moment she and her brother arrive in rural Arkansas, the words covered with a hasty sketch of a quill. Over the years the NYPL also acquired the archives of James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov, whose letters are also on display.
Previously the NYPL hosted small thematic exhibitions, but nothing on this scale and always temporarily; in contrast, the “Treasures” are supposed to last at least 75 years. The public’s appetite for such articles is clear. When the library exhibits its copy of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 – in fact Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy – the queue winds along Fifth Avenue. Free fixed-time tickets to “Treasures” were sold out for the opening weekend and demand remained high. Declan Kiely, the NYPL ‘s director of special collections and exhibitions, says high school and college students in particular can benefit from visiting the exhibition, as these objects “provide a physical and tangible connection to an author who might otherwise appear to be a figure. distant from the past “.
But the library seeks as diverse an audience as possible, hence the diversity of the exhibits: one corner contains ancient Iraqi cuneiform tablets, another the childhood stuffed animals of Christopher Robin Milne, which inspired the stories of “Winnie” the bear ”. The library plans to rotate exhibits over the next few decades, so that as much of its 56m collection as possible can move from the basement to the display cases.
All of this is in stark contrast to how most major archives store their collections for decades. The Metropolitan Museum, for example, displays about 4% of its collections, the British Museum only 1%. But, as Mr. Kiely notes, “if we did not exhibit these works, only a few people, mostly academics, would know of their existence and could see them.” Institutions often cite fear of damage as a way of keeping their valuable assets in stock, sometimes with good reason. In 1940, Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York City, sat down on Dickens’ chair and quickly broke it. The canning has since been restored and library security is watching more closely. ■