September 11 - November 24, 2007
Boston Collects: Celebrating the
Bicentennial of the Boston Athenaeum
Curated by Stanley Cushing & David Dearinger
In September, the Grolier Club will present an exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of the Boston Athenæum, tracing its distinguished history from its founding as a literary society and subscription library in 1807 to the present day. BOSTON COLLECTS: Celebrating the Bicentennial of the Boston Athenæum will emphasize the great range of objects—books, paintings, sculptures, engravings, maps, photographs, manuscripts, decorative arts, curios, and artifacts—that have been collected by the Athenæum over two centuries in order to create a unique inspirational environment for study and intellectual exchange.
From its founding in 1807, the Boston Athenæum’s primary mission has been to provide a suitable location for serious study, discussion, and debate of all topics of interest to the enquiring mind. In the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—the historic period which saw the founding of the Boston Athenæum and similar organizations—it was believed that intellectual endeavors more easily germinate and thrive in an atmosphere that is spacious, comfortable, quiet, and aesthetically pleasing. This required books, of course, but also objects of antiquarian, botanical, biological, anatomical, and anthropological interest. In this setting, fine examples of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and engravings fulfilled their traditional purposes of education and inspiration and—together with those from the world of science—stimulated imaginations, improved morals, and refined aesthetic tastes.
Today, the Boston Athenæum is primarily a library, and the most important part of its collections is its books. These are represented here by examples from the several discrete collections that are part of the Athenæum’s book collection as a whole. These include tracts (or pamphlets) that were collected by the Athenæum’s first librarian, William Smith Shaw and which number in the thousands; books from George Washington’s personal library, including his copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; religious texts that were a gift to Boston’s King’s Chapel by William III in 1698; the library of Washington’s Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, the Schoolcraft Collection of books in Native American languages, among others, and Confederate Imprint Collection, which consists of material gathered by the Athenæum in the North and the South both before and after the American Civil War.
While books are a major focus of this exhibition, a small selection of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts are included and here join books, just as they do at the Athenæum’s Beacon Hill home, in order to suggest the insatiable spirit that informed the Athenæum’s nearly all-inclusive acquisition methods. The philosophy behind these methods was ultimately a product of the Enlightenment and allowed that anything that was made with at least a modicum of craftsmanship, had some aesthetic appeal, or was deemed intellectually or morally uplifting was fair game for acquisition.
In this way, the fascinating story of the Boston Athenæum, its history, and the growth of its collections, will be told in its entirety.
In a lavish catalogue that will accompany the exhibition, the history of the Boston Athenæum and the story of its collections will be compared with those of other, similar organizations such as the Providence Athenæum, the Redwood Library and Athenæum, the Wadsworth Athenæum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This tale of taste will be placed within the larger contexts of the cultural history of the United States and the international movement known as the Enlightenment.
The fully illustrated catalogue, featuring essays by the exhibition’s curators, Stanley Cushing, Curator of Rare Books at the Boston Athenæum, and David Dearinger, the institution’s Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, will be available at the Club.