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‘The Library Re-Imagined,’ at the Huntington
Those offerings are all here at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, an institution with a name as all-embracing as its holdings and a setting as stunning as its contents. And some of these objects have just recently been put on view in two exhibitions that warrant close examination in themselves.
But how can we begin to make sense of this extraordinary place? Located on a onetime ranch just outside Los Angeles purchased in 1903 by the railroad and real-estate magnate Henry E. Huntington, and opened to the public in 1928, the Huntington is now … what? A West Coast incarnation of the Morgan Library? A California version of the New York Botanical Gardens? A Pacific Rim historical society with elements of the Frick and the Folger?
In recent years the difficulties in definition have become more pronounced as the 207-acre Huntington has grown in stature under its president, Steven S. Koblik. With an endowment of more than $400 million (and half a billion dollars raised since 2001) it is among the wealthiest cultural institutions in the country. It has undertaken major restorations and construction (including a $60 million education and visitors center opening in 2015). Each year some 1,700 scholars conduct research here and 600,000 people visit.
Since it is an institution based on collections, what it has partly defines what it does, but a new permanent exhibition in the research library’s restored gallery space — “The Library Re-Imagined: Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times” — helps put things in better perspective. Elegantly conceived by Gordon Chun Design and the Huntington’s own Karina White along with library curators, the exhibition chronologically surveys 12 central works ranging from rarities like a Gutenberg Bible to ephemera like an early-20th-century Chinese cheat sheet to prepare for questioning by immigration officers. Each work becomes the focus of a miniature exhibition, displayed with other holdings that illuminate its era.
Shakespeare’s First Folio, for example, is accompanied by a 1603 book of airs by the composer John Dowland (with music that once might have been the food of love), a circa-1623 shopping list of the Countess of Huntingdon (with fashionable accessories suitable for attending the Globe theater) and a 1616 royal proclamation by James I prohibiting the ownership of “pistols” (demonstrating that Shakespeare’s onstage violence had an offstage counterpart).
This approach is taken throughout. Central works are often accompanied by objects once thought slight or supplementary. “Material culture” — the stuff of daily life — has shifted toward the center of attention.
There is also a transformation that takes place within the exhibition. At the beginning we are struck with a sense of wonder at the artifacts — all milestones in human understanding. But as we approach the present, documents become more documentary. Letters, journals and photographs become prominent.
Instead of invoking broad philosophical, literary or scientific accomplishments, the later displays are also more attuned to present-day tastes and concerns. One centers on Susan B. Anthony’s letter announcing her illegal vote in the 1872 presidential election, which led to her trial (“Well, I have been & gone & done it!!” she writes). Another touches on immigration, race and environmental issues in California.
The exhibition’s “reimagining” of the research library is meant to lure visitors who may not be drawn to 15th-century incunabula. It values relevance. It intends to show the library as democratized, localized, personalized.
These values may have also had an impact on the library’s early evolution. When Huntington started to collect books, he purchased entire libraries from European sellers who had fallen on hard times. These remnants of Old World culture were reconstituted in the New World by such Gilded Age collectors as Pierpont Morgan, Henry Clay Folger and Huntington.
They were driven not just by a need to acquire but also by profound aspirations, a yearning for European culture’s weight and consequence. And this altered the collections’ meanings. In the Old World, the artifacts reflected the enlightenment of a mature culture; in the New, they reflected an unfulfilled desire for enlightenment.
There was also a missionary aspect to the enterprise: enshrining these collections in public institutions would ensure that others would be similarly inspired. The institutions these gilded-age collectors created might even be considered Museums of Aspiration.
Huntington’s Museum of Aspiration was a bit different from Folger’s or what would become Morgan’s because Huntington moved west, further distancing the collections from their origins. They began to acquire new associations and contexts. Huntington created one of the first private Japanese gardens in the United States in 1912. He cultivated cactuses and succulents. He moved his personal collection of rare books here in 1920. And over the next few years he oversaw what the exhibition calls a “dramatic growth” in attention to the history of the American West — a subject that has become increasingly prominent. And so European high culture and American-style aspiration were reshaped into a new form.
Thus, during the last decade, as Jim Folsom, the garden’s director, oversaw the creation of a Chinese garden, he was simply extending Huntington’s cultural enterprise. The largest Chinese garden outside China, it opened in 2008 and is now in the midst of a second phase of construction, including plans for a performance space and a gallery to replicate the function as well as the style of a classical Chinese scholar’s garden. The project has involved Chinese historians, designers and artisans; it has forged relationships with local Chinese communities and defined new interactions between the Huntington and its surroundings.
That is really how another current exhibition must also be understood: “Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions.” The 18th-century Franciscan Junipero Serra is studied in elementary school curriculums here because of his establishment of missions — vanguards of Spanish Catholicism that shaped the architecture and religious life of California. Once they were celebrated for bringing civilization to the natives; here they are condemned for colonial abuses. But we are also shown how the missions affected the region’s syncretic religions and intermingled cultures.
That may be one of the defining characteristics of the Huntington. It is developing its own syncretic style, with European culture at the foundation. This approach has its tensions.The Serra exhibition, for example, ends with works by local Indian artists polemically asserting their enduring identities. And in the library show, the idea of aspiration is almost undercut by later exhibits that are more concerned with grievances and injustices.
Yet at the same time, aspiration is not really jettisoned. The spirit of ambitious wonder is preserved in permanent exhibitions like “Beautiful Science” — a haunting evocation of scientific exploration told through the library’s holdings.
At its best, the Huntington manages to bring all these varied cultural impulses together in a single place, allowing them to interact, and somehow keeping it all magnificently balanced. Not a bad mission at all.”
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