Unraveling the past: New Sterling Library exhibition goes beneath the surface
As Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko prepared her papers for transfer to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, she wrote a brief narrative on a cardboard manuscript box that had contained an editor’s copy of “Ceremony,” her breakthrough novel.
The handwritten note describes differences she’d had with her editor, Richard Seaver, and his wife Jeannette over the 1977 novel’s ending as well as a specific dispute over her “colloquial” use of “like” in place of “as if,” the wording the Seavers preferred.
“They made ominous sounds about ‘not being able to support the book’ unless I gave in,” Silko wrote of the “as if” flap. “Not a big deal, I figured, understanding that compromise was essential when working with people like the Seavers.”
Silko’s narrative is part of “Points of Contact, Points of View: Asking Questions in Yale Library Special Collections,” the inaugural exhibit at Sterling Memorial Library’s Hanke Exhibition Gallery, which opened in March at the far end of the library’s nave. The exhibit, which is on view through Aug. 14, features a wide-ranging assemblage of 60 documents, books, objects, and images drawn from across the Yale Library’s special collections. Materials on view include the original manuscript and music for James Wheldon Johnson’s classic hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a 15th-century prayer roll in Middle English, the prison diary of Japanese documentary filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto, and a pair of cloth dolls used in missionary work in China during the 1930s.
Rather than craft a conventional narrative encompassing the disparate materials, the exhibit’s curators — Bill Landis, associate director for public services at Manuscripts and Archives; Jae Rossman, director of the Department of Area Studies and Humanities Research Support; and Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry in the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke — framed the show around the basic questions that guide scholars’ thinking when they first encounter unique primary source materials: Who made this? When was it made? What was its function? Whose perspectives are missing?
This approach allows visitors to enjoy the diverse materials on display while also considering the basics of conducting research at a world-class library.
“Research begins with curiosity and questions,” Kuhl said. “The work always starts in the same place: What am I looking at? It’s a basic question that can lead to profound discoveries.”
It is a fitting way to open the new gallery, which was designed and built for the optimal display of unique, fragile, and rare primary source materials from Yale’s special collections. Located to the left of the entrance to the library’s stacks and former circulation desk, the space is outfitted with state-of-the-art lighting, climate control, and security. Its four flat table cases and four vertical wall cases accommodate a wide range of materials, from three-dimensional objects to large manuscripts, photographs, and rare books.
The gallery was made possible through the support of Lynn Hanke, a member of the University Library Council, and her husband, Robert Hanke ’60.
“For years, we have aspired to have a state-of-the-art exhibition gallery in Sterling Memorial Library where we can share inspiring stories from across the library’s special collections in a central space,” said Barbara Rockenbach, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian. “Thanks to the great generosity and vision to support our special collection mission, Lynn and Robert Hanke have allowed us finally to open such a space.”
The new gallery also enables the Yale Library to realize its vision for a more unified special collections, Rockenbach noted. “Points of Contact, Points of View” includes materials from the library’s seven repositories for special collections: The Haas Family Arts Library, the Beinecke, the Divinity School Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, Manuscripts and Archives, the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, and the Gilmore Music Library.
In organizing the exhibit, the curators invited colleagues from across the special-collections libraries to nominate materials for inclusion.
“It was a broad invitation,” Kuhl said. “We sought proposals for items that represent important aspects of the collection or items that seemed understudied or whose significance might not be obvious to everyone.”
The wall cases are organized according to themes that are meant to encourage viewers to draw connections between objects that might seem unrelated at first glance. A case dedicated to the theme of “knowing” features a selection of Noah Webster’s notes for dictionary entries, a box of printing types of Chinese characters from a commercial printer that was based in Shanghai, an 18th-century Korean atlas of the Chosŏn Dynasty, and a 1655 Arabic treatise on the Nile River, among other objects.
Materials in the table cases are displayed alongside questions they inspire. An orange card below Silko’s manuscript box asks, “Who is it for?” and “Who is the audience?” Other items in the case include a diary that Albert Dodd kept while he was a student at Yale College from July 1836 to October 1837. It details his relationships with men and women and a photograph of a woman dressed as a doctor from a 1902 series by photographer Albert Bergeret of female models posing in the dress of various professions.
Kuhl proposed including Silko’s manuscript box.
“The object is so rich with information,” she said. “It is Leslie Marmon Silko reaching out as she was making her papers available to tell us what is important about this particular manuscript so that we don’t miss it. But her narrative raises new questions.
“An archive can be like a crystal ball, or a time machine, or a sort of puzzle,” she added. “It can be those things and a million other things. I feel this object embodies some of that.”
The exhibit’s curators closely collaborated with Megan Czekaj, library exhibition technician; Sarah Davis, library exhibition technician; and Kerri Sancomb, exhibition program manager in Preservation and Conservation Services. See the library’s COVID-19 page for visitor hours and vaccination requirements.