Case in Point

From the Stacks, the Newberry’s new permanent exhibit, is now open. Every three months, Newberry curators will select a fresh round of items to introduce visitors to the library’s collection. Individually, these items serve as a conduit to the past; collectively, they reflect the scope of the Newberry’s collecting efforts in the humanities over the past 131 years.

During the exhibit’s first rotation, visitors get to see this range on vivid display. It is immediately evident that the curators took their mandate to show variety very, very seriously. On one end of the collection spectrum inside the gallery is a chained medieval bookbinding, which would have kept the book secure on a shelf in a 15th-century library. At the other end of the spectrum is a selection of pussy hats and other protest ephemera from the 2017 Women’s March in Chicago.

In between are various other Newberry collection items, including the first Native-authored, Native-copyrighted text (David Cusick’s Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations); Ben Hecht’s 1928 Oscar for best screenplay for Underworld; and German-American hand-illuminated baptismal certificates from the late 18th century.

While all these things command attention, the case in which they're displayed is itself a marvel to behold. Measuring 8-feet-tall and 46-feet-long, the case runs nearly the full length of the Hanson Gallery. Inside, climatized air is controlled by a computer system that monitors and adjusts the temperature and humidity levels to create a stable environment for collection materials.

“It’s almost like a small gallery in and of itself,” says Steven Gerrard, Principal of Ann Beha Architects, the firm behind the Newberry’s first-floor renovation.

The Hanson Gallery case was modeled on a similar one that ABA designed for the Olin Library at Washington University in Saint Louis. What makes the Newberry case unique is the degree to which it was blended into original architectural elements of the building.

“The architecture and the display case are integrated into one piece of architecture,” says Gerrard. “Instead of a free-standing box, it wraps around the existing columns running along the gallery on one side and a corridor on the other.”

As a result, visitors are able to see objects on display both inside and outside the Hanson Gallery. In the corridor to the north of the gallery, niches between the columns display items installed in the same case used to exhibit items inside the gallery.

In addition to being a feat of architecture, design, and engineering, the continuous display case also aligns with the Newberry’s curatorial objectives. Newberry curators wanted to use the gallery not just to show off an array of cool things in isolation but to underscore the ways in which they’re interrelated. Items usually represent not a single subject or collecting focus but several; and the historical lessons they offer are magnified when these items are brought into dialogue with one another—for example, materials showing the interconnectedness of print and manuscript culture or Native and non-Native interpretations of American history.

From the Stacks will demonstrate the connections between and among the Newberry’s various collections, in ways that might not have been possible using a series of separate exhibition cases. In the process, the exhibit may open up new avenues for research and learning.

By Alex Teller, Director of Communications and Editorial Services

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