The Brown University Library is home to a robust exhibition program, with nine exhibit spaces throughout four buildings that present a mix of permanent, temporary, and traveling exhibits, many of which are also featured online through digital exhibition. Showcasing items from the Library’s collections as well as items created by students in Brown courses, Library exhibits offer viewers a closer look at remarkable material presented through a scholarly lens.
Harriette Hemmasi Exhibition Gallery
In recognition of the importance of a library exhibition program and in honor of Harriette Hemmasi, Joukowsky Family University Librarian from 2005 – 2018, the Brown University Library Advisory Council gave a generous gift of $300,000 to name the John Hay Library main exhibition space the Harriette Hemmasi Exhibition Gallery. These funds will provide support for Library exhibitions, including conservation, preservation, and collections care and management as well as design, outreach, publicity, and technology for exhibits. According to Tiffini Bowers, Library Exhibitions Curator, “This gift will allow for greater technological enhancements, enabling us to streamline behind-the-scenes processes, engage with broader public audiences, and foster deeper digital connections between people and our stellar collections.” The Library is profoundly grateful to the Library Advisory Council for supporting this fundamental facet in the academic life of the University.
Growing Exhibition Program
Over the past three years, the number of Library exhibits has increased along with their quality and diversity. Exhibits are now more connected to the academic pursuits and priorities of students and faculty at Brown, as well as to local, national, and international academic institutions and cultural organizations. During the 2017 – 2018 academic year, the Library mounted 29 exhibitions in nine spaces, a feat which required exemplary planning and management in addition to creativity; awareness of collections, disciplinary interest, and areas of academic focus; and attention to issues of diversity, inclusion, and access.
A Practice of Partnering
Part of the Library exhibition program includes establishing and fostering partnerships with other campus entities and local community organizations. Recently, we collaborated with the Brown University Herbarium, the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, and the Rhode Island Historical Society to mount the exhibit, Entwined: Botany, Art, and the Lost Cat Swamp Habitat, which has garnered positive media attention and keen interest from members of the Providence community. (The exhibit runs through April 30, 2019 in the Harriette Hemmasi Exhibition Gallery, John Hay Library.)
In addition to our own exhibits, the Library also loans items from the collections to other organizations at Brown and beyond, nationally and internationally. Currently, we have a loan out to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC for an exhibition entitled, Americans and the Holocaust, which features objects and digital images from the Martha and Waitstill Sharp Collection. (The exhibit runs through October 11, 2021.) We have also loaned two letters between Sarah Helen Whitman and Stéphanie Mallarmé plus a framed lock of Edgar Allan Poe’s hair to the Providence Athenaeum for its exhibit, Ravenous: The Enduring Legacy of Poe (running through April 30, 2019).
The Exhibition Lifecycle
The Library’s exhibition program encompasses the entire lifecycle of exhibitions, conducted at professional, museum-quality standards. Tiffini, who came on board as the Exhibition Curator in 2016, manages Library exhibits from idea submission through preparation, installation, and programming. She works with Brown students, faculty, and Library staff as well as experts at external organizations to curate exhibits, providing the guidance and planning framework essential to mounting exceptional exhibits on a complex timetable.
Exhibition Expertise at the Library
Many Library staff members play an essential role in exhibitions. Librarians and Library Curators often conceptualize, research, and curate exhibits and provide research support to students and faculty who create exhibits. Michelle Venditelli, Head of Preservation, Conservation, and the Library Annex, oversees the physical care of Library materials. She and her staff determine whether items are suitable for display and if they require repair or other treatment, the majority of which is conducted in-house.
Prior to exhibition, Preservation staff members Erica Saladino and Marie Malchodi engineer mounts for the objects, which can range from books to images to three dimensional ephemera. Shashi Mishra and Lindsay Elgin in Digital Production Services take high resolution photographs of the items for use in exhibition graphics, publicity, and website content.
Physical and Digital Exhibits
In some cases, online exhibits or collection websites are created to accompany the physical exhibit. These digital iterations, along with brochures and other print materials, extend the reach and impact of the exhibit’s selection of materials and scholarly insights while also providing a durable record into the future.
How Old Is Your Oldest Book? Exhibitions and Academic Discovery
In Spring 2002, two seniors in Visiting Professor Alice Slotsky’s class, “Ancient Scientific Writings: Akkadian,” undertook an elective project to decipher two of the Library’s 27 cuneiform tablets and cones from ancient Mesopotamia. Considered the Library’s oldest books at 4,000+ years old, none of the tablets had been translated until these students took on the project, which resulted in the translation of four of the tablets and an exhibition using those translations at the Rockefeller Library in 2018. (Brown Students “Crack” Cuneiform Tablets.) Written in Sumerian, not Akkadian, the translated tablets were discovered to be economic texts, recording commercial transactions.
The exhibition of collections provides a unique opportunity to engage students, faculty, staff, and community members with Library materials and intriguing perspectives, enhancing academic learning and offering original ways of thinking about objects and questions old and new. The promise of exhibits to complement and deepen study in the University’s areas of academic priority is truly exciting, and the Library looks forward to continuing development in its exhibition program under Tiffini’s guidance and through the expertise of Library staff, with valuable support from donors, in partnership with departments at Brown, and through collaboration with local and global academic and cultural organizations.
More information about Library exhibits is available at Exhibits at Brown University Library.