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The New York Public Library Spotlights Its Vast Collections in Celebrating 100 Years


The New York Public Library is featuring over 250 artifacts from its incredible research collections in the new exhibition Celebrating 100 Years, which will open May 14 at the Library’s landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

The exhibition – a cornerstone of the Library’s celebration of the Schwarzman Building’s 100th birthday – is organized by independent curator Thomas Mellins and will shine a spotlight on items spanning thousands of years and representing the worlds of literature, dance, social activism, invention, exploration, religion, history and innumerable other intellectual disciplines and creative pursuits. Artifacts belonging to literary giants such as William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte and Jorge Luis Borges will complement historically important items related to a wide variety of issues and events, from the Age of Discovery, to the creation of the Soviet Union, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and the AIDS crisis.

“My primary goal in this exhibition is to show the depth and breadth of the Library’s remarkable collections,” said Mellins, who previously curated an exhibition on the history of Lincoln Center at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. “The collections constitute an irreplaceable tool for understanding our world. I hope that Celebrating 100 Years will serve as a point of entry for visitors, a glimpse into the Library’s vast holdings, occasioned by the 100th birthday of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.”

Specific items in the exhibition include 4,300-year-old Sumerian cuneiforms – among the earliest known examples of writing; John James Audubon’s Birds of America; some of Jack Kerouac’s personal effects, including his glasses and his harmonica; Virginia Woolf’s walking stick and the last entry in her diary before she took her own life; the first Gutenberg Bible brought to The United States; photographs by Diane Arbus and Vik Muniz; Johannes Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum of 1596; Katharine Cornell’s makeup box; first-edition sheet music of the “Star Spangled Banner”; a letter from Groucho Marx; a board game from 1809 called “A Voyage Round the Habitable Globe”; a copy of The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot with Ezra Pound’s edits; Jerome Robbins’ visual diary, which is made up of a series of collages and is a piece of beautiful artwork in itself; illustrations from the Bhagavata Purana; Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk; Terry Southern’s “Easy Rider” script; Malcolm X’s briefcase and a personal journal written during his 1964 trip to Mecca; a ballot from the first post-apartheid election held in South Africa; photos from Ellis Island; W.W. Denslow’s “Wizard of Oz” illustrations; a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair; a diary from Chester F. Carlson, the inventor of Xerox; John Coltrane’s handwritten score for his arrangement of “Lover Man”; the copy of David Copperfield that Charles Dickens used for public readings and Dickens’s personal letter-opener, made out of his beloved cat Bob’s paw; a 1939 New York World’s Fair scrapbook; Ludwig van Beethoven’s handwritten score for the Archduke Trio; a 16th Century scroll of The Tale of Genji; an Andy Warhol silk screen; copy of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book owned by Lin Biao, Mao’s designated successor who was later denounced as a traitor to the nation; a costume from Ballets Russes; and etchings from Francisco Goya’s anti-war print series The Disasters Of War.

A second gallery will highlight artifacts connected specifically to the Library’s history, including a 1911 letter from Harry Houdini to his friend and NYPL’s first director John Shaw Billings offering his complete set of “Conjurers’ Monthly”  because he found the Library's magic holdings insufficient; a first edition of the book Andy and the Lion, the bronze ceremonial key from the 1911 opening of the Schwarzman Building, newspaper articles and photographs. The Library’s own Geospatial Librarian Matt Knutzen has also created a

mapping video about the area where the Schwarzman Building currently sits and how it has changed over the years.

“For the last 100 years, curators at The New York Public Library have used their tastes and talents to build one of the world's most renowned research collections, item by item, day by day,” said NYPL President Paul LeClerc. “These men and women have made NYPL the holder of history, and the exhibition Celebrating 100 Years is a fitting tribute to their efforts. Each of the 250 items selected are not only individually compelling, but shown together, tell the story of the world around us, and how it has changed over time. NYPL is the only institution in the world that always makes these collections accessible to the public, so I can't think of a better way to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building than with an exhibition like this, shining a spotlight on what makes us so unique.”

The items in the exhibition will be organized into four thematic sections: Observation, Contemplation, Society and Creativity. Within each grouping, dramatic contrasts and juxtapositions are intended to create dialogues across time and space, and in so doing demonstrate the collections’ incredible range. For example, the earliest known copy of a letter from Christopher Columbus announcing his discovery of the Americas will be seen adjacent to photos of the Earth and moon taken from outer space by astronauts on the Apollo missions. A draft of The Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand will be seen next to not only a handwritten draft of George Washington’s farewell address, but also a wallet-sized pamphlet produced by the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, the title of which is “What To Do if You’re Arrested.”

“The objects I selected reflect the concepts of range and diversity in numerous ways, including subject matter and the time and place in which the work on display was created,” Mellins said. “But the encyclopedic nature of the Library’s holdings can be seen in another way, as well. Most of the items in the exhibition are of clear historic or artistic value. But the inclusion of some, such as a board game or Beatles trading cards, may confound. Still other

items may disturb us. But the Library does not function as our collective conscious; it is our collective memory. The Library’s collection rests upon the fundamental notion that all knowledge is worth preserving.”

The New York Public Library has millions of items in its research collections, which are housed at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, The Science Industry and Business Library, The Library For The Performing Arts and The Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture. Countless writers, researchers and students have used these collections in their work, including Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro who wrote The Power Broker and last year’s Pulitzer and National Book Award winner T.J. Stiles.

“The New York Public Library is dedicated to preserving the history of our culture and society,” said Ann Thornton, NYPL’s Acting Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries . “Our vast collections represent the memory of mankind, and have been used to further scholarship in countless research papers, books, films, plays and so on. We are proud to share a small selection of that vast collection in Celebrating 100 Years, which highlights not only the uniqueness of the chosen items, but their historic significance and importance."

Images from NYPL’s Digital Gallery will be peppered throughout Celebrating 100 Years, and “Fun Facts” about the Library – such as in 1911, all employees were supplied with rubber-soled shoes to help with comfort on the hard marble floors – will be projected.

The exhibition is free to the public, and will be open until the end of December. Hours are Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m., to 6 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tours will be available.

Celebrating 100 Years will be open during a public festival marking the Centennial of the Schwarzman Building on May 21 and May 22. The festival will include programs for both kids and adults. For more information, go to

The New York Public Library's Annual Exhibitions Program is funded through the extraordinary leadership support of Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman. Additional support is provided by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc., in memory of Ruth and Seymour Klein.

MetLife Foundation is the Lead Corporate Sponsor of the Centennial Exhibition Celebrating 100 Years and related programming. Additional support for the Library's Centennial Celebration has been made possible through an endowment established by family and friends of the late Richard B. Salomon, and by Bank of America, The Skeel Fund, The Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Asprey, Wells Fargo, Celeste Bartos, The Wall Street Journal, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Titan, WABC-TV/Channel 7, Penguin Classics, Engine Yard, and Gotham Magazine.