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Huntington Library reopens with a refreshing familiarity

Long-awaited remodel highlights the times in which its iconic holdings came to exist.

November 15, 2013|By Lynne Heffley
  • Library Main Exhibition Hall at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, renovated and installed with the new exhibition "Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library."
Library Main Exhibition Hall at The Huntington Library,… (Photo by Tim Street-Porter )

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.”

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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.

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