The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens main Exhibition Closed for Reinstallation

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens announced today plans to renovate and completely reinstall the Main Exhibition Hall of its historic Library building with a new, dynamic permanent exhibition designed to provoke visitors’ sense of connection to history and literature and to better highlight the value and uses of the Library’s incomparable collections of historical materials. The Main Exhibition Hall will be closed from June 5, 2012, to the fall of 2013 as the new installation, anchored by about 100 rare items from the collections, is constructed.

One of the most treasured pieces in the collection, the Gutenberg Bible, will be moved to the Huntington Art Gallery on June 5 so that it can remain on view uninterrupted. The other items, including the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a double-elephant folio edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, and rare early editions of William Shakespeare’s works, will come back on view late this summer in a portion of the Erburu wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art that previously had been used for storage. This temporary installation will ensure that school programs, which serve about 3,600 children each year, can continue without interruption during the 2012–13 academic year.

“Scholars around the world are familiar with the depth and significance of the primary source materials at The Huntington, and now, with this thoughtful reimagining of the core Library exhibition, the public will be better able to explore one of our most crucial roles here—as a research center with glorious special collections,” Huntington president Steven Koblik said.

Designed principally by architect Myron Hunt (1868–1952) for Henry E. Huntington, and first opened in 1920, the Library’s Main Exhibition Hall served as a reading room for scholars until 1931, when a new reading room was constructed, and since has served exclusively as a gallery. The exhibition as currently installed was created in 1977 and has been only modestly updated since. The project announced today will include renovation of the heating, air conditioning, and electrical systems, but the most dramatic aspect of the $2.5 million undertaking will be the new exhibition.

“We’re seizing a historic opportunity with an ambitious plan,” said David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library. “We intend to highlight a selection of works from our collection of some 9 million items, each with countless stories to tell, in a concise display that won’t overwhelm, but rather delight and profoundly inspire people again and again. We’re fortunate to be faced with such an exciting challenge—one that occurs maybe only once in a generation.”

The new Library exhibition will begin with an introduction in what is known as the Trustees’ Room—not previously part of the permanent exhibition space —presenting a behind-the-scenes look at the activities of the Huntington Library today. The display will be rooted in the importance of original materials and cover the topics of collecting, acquisitions, conservation, and research through videos, images, and original materials. This section will include a selection of books written by researchers who have used Huntington Library materials in their scholarship.

The exhibition then will unfold through the foyer and into the 3,456-square-foot wood-paneled, balcony-rimmed Main Hall, which will spotlight 12 key works in vignettes organized chronologically. The key works will begin with the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and continue with landmark items, including the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s first folio, Audubon’s Birds of America, and Henry David Thoreau’s manuscript of Walden. The works will represent the strengths of the Library’s collection—English culture from the Middle Ages through the 18th century, American colonial history and the Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, English and American literature, and the exploration and development of the American West.

Each vignette will incorporate other rare works to help locate it in time and place, stimulating visitors to make connections and consider a wider context. For example, a first folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, published in 1623, will be displayed alongside books that inspired him, 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. Each vignette will offer unexpected juxtapositions and new insights into the collections, and into history itself.

Overall, the Main Exhibition Hall will be designed to be a comfortable, beautiful place that inspires people to read, reflect, and discuss, with benches and reading materials available throughout.

The exhibition is being designed by Karina White working with Gordon Chun Design, based in Berkeley, Calif., who worked together on The Huntington’s award-winning permanent exhibitions “Plants are Up to Something” in The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science and “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” in Dibner Hall of the History of Science, which adjoins the Library’s Main Hall.

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