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Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World

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October 14, 2000 through January 27, 2001

Program Locations:

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Edna Barnes Salomon Room

Conceived and developed in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, this exhibition looks at ideal societies, both imagined and attempted, from classical antiquity through the present day and presents the contrasting notions of paradises lost and ideal cities yet to be created. The exhibition begins with stunning medieval illuminated manuscripts that reveal the sources of Western utopian thought, including classical works about the Golden Age and the ideal republic, early images of Paradise and the Garden of Eden, and medieval travel narratives describing wondrous worlds. Renaissance theories of ideal architecture and the expanding geographical knowledge gained during the Age of Exploration provide a context for the display of a first edition of the first utopian fiction, Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Literary utopias are a significant thread of the exhibition which includes important editions of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Bellamy's Looking Backward, and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Attempts at creating utopias are documented, from the early American colonial experience through 19th-century socialist and religious colonies and into the commune movement of the sixties. The American, French, and Russian Revolutions are represented through prints and broadsides which capture the idealism behind the revolutionary fervor. The exhibit concludes with a look at 20th-century utopias and dystopias, including political and social upheavals, literary imaginings, particularly through the genre of science fiction, and new architectural endeavors.

An illustrated companion volume, published by Oxford University Press, features twenty-two essays by world-renowned scholars on topics relating to the themes of the exhibition, as well as bibliographies and a filmography. The more than 300 images, in color and black and white, were selected from materials exhibited at The New York Public Library and at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.