Personal Collections, Vol. I | Newberry

Personal Collections, Vol. I

Our staff build, preserve, and provide access to the Newberry’s collection of 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, and 500,000 manuscript pages. Many of them also methodically curate their own personal collections ranging from coffee mugs to Kennedy memorabilia.

In this blog series, Newberry staff members share their personal collections and explain how and why they collect what they collect.

NB: In accordance with professional standards for museum and library workers, Newberry staff practice strict “social distancing” from anything related to the Newberry’s collecting interests to avoid any possible perceived conflict of interest.

Collector: Kristin Emery, Manager of Governance and Assistant to the President
Collection: Kennedy Memorabilia

How and when did you start your collection?

The whole thing started in 2003 when my best friend, Courtney Carroll, returned from a softball trip to Dallas and brought me this 8x12 hand-tinted, mustard-background poster of Bobby Kennedy from the Sixth Floor Museum. We were very into the counterculture era, and had this inside joke where we’d say ridiculous things in a purposefully bad Kennedy accent. The main phrase we always returned to, though, was, “My..errr…ahhh…brothah Bawby is betteh looking than I ahm!” So I think she got me the poster to commemorate the weird, never-fully-admitted, retrospective crushes on Bobby Kennedy that we both secretly had.

For many years, the Bobby poster was the only piece of Kennedy memorabilia that I owned. I’ve displayed it prominently in every dorm room, house, and apartment I’ve lived in since leaving my parents’ home. A few years ago, I actually framed it, backed by a mat with a funky border that I found at a thrift store. Now it’s the centerpiece of my dining room and features prominently in my Zoom background.

Are you actively building your collection? If so, how do you find new material to add to your collection?

I’ve always kind of played up my weird Kennedy crush/obsession as a running joke. At some point along the way, one of my friends gave me a set of commemorative JFK glasses as a New Year’s present. Then another friend gave me two rugs with JFK’s face (one with his face and the White House) on them. Someone else mailed me a copy of Profiles in Courage, a collection of short biographies of US Senators written by JFK. The more the collection grew, the more I’d tell people about it, and the more happy returns I’ve received.

I hope to continue this passive method of collecting for the rest of my life. At this point, I feel like it would be bad luck for me to actively acquire any additional Kennedy stuff!

What interests you about Kennedy memorabilia?

Um, they’re hot?

Just kidding. (I mean they are, but that’s not my real answer.)

I’m interested in the posthumous cult of personalities that rose up around the two brothers. I first encountered Kennedy memorabilia in the homes of friends who grew up (or whose parents grew up) in working-class Catholic families. This stuff wasn’t campaign memorabilia but the glasses, coins, and statuettes that people collected and displayed in their homes after the assassinations––and continued to do so even into the 1990s and 2000s. People didn’t really do that for other presidents.

I’m sure some of it was based on their political ideologies (especially Bobby’s), and on their perceived martyrdom. But the Kennedys also embodied an interesting facet of the American Dream. Aside from the whole Camelot thing, JFK was the first Catholic to be president and I’m curious about what that meant for first- and second-generation European immigrants of the time. Did they see in his presidency a chance at political representation and upward cultural mobility? Do the same people who commemorate John do the same for Bobby, and vice versa? The two brothers stood for different things so I’m sure it’s a Venn Diagram, but one I’d love to see at any rate.

What is the gem of your collection?

I will always love my original Bobby poster, but the real gem of the collection is a beautiful, stylized watercolor portrait of JFK that my friend, an artist named Dylan Jones, painted for me for my birthday a few years ago. It’s a custom job that takes the traditional commemorative portraiture and runs it through a postmodern filter.

Also I have a secret JFK hidden in my bathroom.

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