Exhibition: “In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society”

Special exhibition to mark the Society’s bicentennial, at the Grolier Club, New York, September 12 through November 17, 2012.

Considered to be the first Confederate imprint, this broadside announced to the public the declaration, on December 20, 1860, that South Carolina would secede from the United States. This sheet was removed from a wall in Charleston by the popular Boston-born author Caroline Howard Gilman (1794-1888).

As most readers of this blog already know, the American Antiquarian Society was founded two hundred years ago, in 1812 in Worcester, Massachusetts, by the patriot, printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas. In fact, Thomas’s personal library forms the nucleus of the collection which today numbers four million items, over two million newspapers, and includes substantial holdings of periodicals, graphic arts, and manuscripts.

It would be difficult to truly represent the full breadth and depth of AAS collections in a single exhibition, so a different approach was taken by the Society’s curatorial team. We wanted to show that the creation of an institution like the Society depends on support from a large number of individual people.   In Pursuit of a Vision introduces nearly thirty of the many librarians, philanthropic collectors, book dealers, members and scholars who have, over the past two hundred years, helped to build this independent institution into a national treasure.  As aficionados and collectors well know, each acquisition, whether it is added to a public or personal collection, often comes with its own story. This exhibition and the generously illustrated catalog that accompanies it (order at Oak Knoll Books), chronicle the individual stories of almost two hundred objects, which have been arranged by theme: laying the foundation, late nineteenth-century benefactors, collecting in the twentieth century, bibliographic initiatives, specialized collecting, and responsible stewardship.

This mid-nineteenth century example of a children’s picture book depicting street vendors follows a long tradition of children’s literature about street vendors and their cries dating back to the late seventeenth century in London. The book was given to AAS by Charles Henry Taylor, head of the Boston Globe newspaper.

As the American Antiquarian Society begins its third century as a leading research library and a learned society, the institution’s success remains a collective achievement shared by many individuals, both past and present, whose commitment and generosity have made it a reality.

In the early days of the American Antiquarian Society, founder Isaiah Thomas asked members to send materials for preservation in the Society’s library at Worcester, Massachusetts.  He explained, “We cannot obtain a knowledge of those who are to come after us, nor are we certain what will be the events of future times; as it is in our power, so it should be our duty to bestow on posterity that which they cannot give to us, but which they may enlarge and improve and transmit to those who shall succeed them.” Over the course of two hundred years, generations of the Society’s members, friends, and staff have ably answered Thomas’s call.

In Pursuit of a Vision celebrates the generosity and farsightedness of some of the many collectors, book dealers, and librarians who have, each in his or her own way, contributed to the greatness of the American Antiquarian Society.

Installed case at the exhibition.

LOCATION AND TIME: In Pursuit of a Vision will be on view at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York, from September 12 – November 17, 2012. The exhibit will be open to the public free of charge, Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Additional information and directions are available at www.grolierclub.org.

Published by

Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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