A handwritten draft of George Washington’s farewell address, original sheet music composed by Mozart and a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating to around 2300 B.C. are among the rotating trove of artifacts set to be featured in the New York Public Library’s first permanent exhibition.
According to a press release, the display, scheduled to open in late 2020, will occupy the institution’s 6,400-square-foot Gottesman Hall exhibition space. Spotlighting a changing selection of manuscripts, rare books, prints, photographs, films and ephemera drawn from the NYPL’s more than 46 million-strong collection, the exhibition will be the first of its kind to showcase the “depth and breadth of the Library’s holdings.”
Currently, the majority of the NYPL’s literary and historical artifacts are hidden in storage, seen only by visiting scholars and tourists lucky enough to encounter them in the library’s rotating cycle of temporary exhibitions. As NYPL President Anthony W. Marx tells The New York Times’ James Barron, a prized draft of the Bill of Rights featuring two never-ratified amendments serves as a prime example of “treasures we have here that most people don’t know exist.” The document was previously only exhibited during the United States’ 1976 Bicentennial celebrations.
The planned permanent exhibition—funded by a $12 million donation from philanthropist and Brooklyn native Leonard S. Polonsky’s Polonsky Foundation—aims to make such national treasures more accessible to the general public. Although the library is still finalizing the list of artifacts to be considered for inclusion in the gallery, Marx notes that Charles Dickens’ personal copy of A Christmas Carol, complete with musings scribbled in the margins, and a letter opener modeled after the paw of the Victorian author’s beloved cat Bob are among those poised to make the cut.
The letter opener isn't the only animal-related artifact set to go on display: Curators are also considering a sketch of British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet cocker spaniel. Dubbed Flush, the pup is best known as the subject of Virginia Woolf’s tongue-in-cheek character study. While there's no word on whether Flush: A Biography will make it into the show, the NYPL press release does state that other Woolf-related materials, including selections from the Modernist master’s assorted manuscripts, may make the cut. Preliminary pages penned by such authors as Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Herman Melville and Langston Hughes are also in consideration.
Additional artifacts listed in the NYPL statement include Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, a Gutenberg Bible, photographs by Diane Arbus and the original Winnie-the-Pooh doll owned by A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Robin. More top contenders include dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s diary, pen and ink drawings for L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and a letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand documenting his “discovery” of the New World.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Melanie Grayce West explains that the permanent exhibition is part of a $317 million campaign to renovate the NYPL’s flagship building. In addition to making more space for displays, the ambitious project will provide researchers with quiet study rooms situated a safe distance from potentially noisy visitors. A new education center aimed at teaching high school and college students how to engage with primary sources is also in the works.
The Polonsky Exhibition will not simply serve as a space for visitors to view highlights from the NYPL’s vast collection. Instead, staffers hope the gallery will draw attention to the importance of primary research.
As William Kelly, director of the library’s four research centers, tells Barron, "It’s a chance to unearth stories from the material.”
Editor's note, March 20, 2019: Due to an error in the press release, this piece has been updated to reflect the pen and ink drawings of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that may be included in the exhibition are not by L. Frank Baum. The spelling of Baum's name has also been corrected.