Browsing the Library: Houghton and Pusey


An exploration of some of the exhibits from the Harvard Library Collections. 

For all the talk of soothing shelves of books, cool marble paneling (and vinyl-grain wood veneer if you’re in Lamont), and plush armchairs, libraries at Harvard are more often than not innately stressful places. Whether it be a problem set bearing down on you or an essay whose thesis resolutely refuses to come into focus, the late-night struggles that libraries house evince the fundamentally stressful nature of a modern liberal arts education. If you’re a student who finds the library stressful at times, help is at hand, and it’s not another coffee break or some clammy Lamont sushi either. For within the hallowed halls of Harvard’s many libraries there exist all manner of miniature study breaks in museum-exhibit form, exhibits that at once plunge you into the depths of the tremendous scholarship in the humanities that goes on every day behind the closed doors of the library staff offices. From the sole known pair of 1500s-vintage Mercator globes in North America to the historical memorabilia of Victorian-era drawing-rooms and interstate highways, the Harvard Library Collections have much to offer on display—a slice of which is presented in three of the current exhibitions in the Pusey and Houghton Libraries.

The Pusey library, that subterranean offshoot of the great Lamont complex, is best accessed through the cave-like entrance dug into the hill across from the colonnaded grandeur of Widener. Its stark 1970’s-vintage grey stone exterior is certainly paired up with an interior to match — low ceilings, vinyl wood veneer, and aging faux-modern tufted armless chairs all certainly give the impression of a building rooted very heavily in the past. And the collections available reflect that: the Pusey library is host to a rotating variety of artistically flavored historical exhibitions, the most recent of which is ‘The Ancestry of the Mother Road: Mapping Route 66’. An exploration of the cultural and social fabric woven by that greatest of American highways, ‘Mapping Route 66’ presents a cartographical perspective on the storied place of Route 66 as a symbol of Americana writ large. And large it looms indeed. Just as Route 66 stretched in its heyday from Chicago to Los Angeles, this exhibit spans the entirety of the aptly-named Corridor Gallery. But the exhibit is calmly paced, featuring everything from original sheet music for the early-rock classic “Get your Kicks/on Route 66” (composed for Nat King Cole) to Art Deco-flavored travel maps from the 1930s and 40s. But the exhibit’s gaze is as impartial as it is nostalgic: a massive satellite-image overlay of the route maps the precipitous decline of John Steinbeck’s “mother road” at the hands of the interstates and the march of time.

Time, however, is not so impartial in what it chooses to sweep aside: while the dusty Googie roadside landmarks of Route 66 may have had their day, some works of art manage to endure through the centuries. Such is the case with the works presented in the exhibit ‘Dante At Harvard: An Exhibition Commemorating the 750th Anniversary of the Poet’s Birth’ at the Houghton Library. Hosted in the gorgeous Houghton Library (for the unacquainted, that squarish building between Widener and Lamont), ‘Dante At Harvard’ presents a small but lovingly curated and assembled picture of the great poet’s continuing influence on some of the great men and women of Harvard. The exhibit is set within the second-floor Amy Lowell Room, which itself is a fine collection of rare books and English literature that provides a veritable who’s-who of literary luminaries within its ivory shelves. ‘Dante At Harvard’ provides a similar sensation: after the initial thrill of viewing an original fragment of Dante’s Inferno dating back to around 1350, you notice some familiar and distinctly 19th-century names. Ticknor, Lowell, and Longfellow—all of them were distinguished alumni of the Dante Club, an informal gathering of literary elites who would read Dante before enjoying grand feasts. Modern Dante scholarship is no less exciting: the exhibit also features Matthew Perry’s bestselling murder mystery ‘The Dante Club’, proving that Dante still can capture the public imagination 750 years on.

Another anniversary is in full force at the other Houghton Library exhibit, ‘The World of Walter Crane’ in the Edison and Newman Room, albeit a somewhat less joyous one because 2015 marks the hundredth anniversary of the great illustrator and draughtsman Walter Crane’s death in 1915. Known for his intricately drawn Victorian-era children’s books and illustrations, Walter Crane produced an enormous body of visual art in media ranging from pen-on-ink sketch-work to stained glass and wallpapers. ‘The World of Walter Crane’ presents a fine sampler of Crane’s highly varied oeuvre, drawing from the expansive Caroline Miller Parker Collection of Works By Walter Crane to build a fascinating picture of his artistic development. From early juvenilia such as self-portraits and light sketches (his sketches from the London Zoo are an especial treat) to his illustrations for his literary friends such as George Bernard Shaw (the playwright of Pygmalion fame), Crane’s intensely varied artistic life is on full display. And what a life it is: Crane’s tremendous draughtsmanship, his supreme command of pen and ink and watercolor, helps to build joyously-framed illustrations that fuse Gothic and Medieval flourishes with Victorian sensibility.

But Crane was more than just an artist in the same way any work of art is more than just a visual or auditory adornment. With deep political roots in old-style Fabian socialism, Crane’s social conscience and high-minded idealism comes through well in the Houghton exhibition. Crane’s delightful children’s books are equally matched in skill by the fine illustrations he penned for fellow Fabian and playwright George Bernard Shaw (of Pygmalion fame). This political fire brought him to Harvard as well: in between promoting his works and attending anarchists’ conferences in Boston, Crane found the time to ink a charming rooftop sketch of 1890s’ Cambridge, complete with the great grey-red spire of Annenberg rising over the rooftops. Within that sort of commonality lies the wonderful sense of history through which the Crane exhibit—and by rapid extension the Dante and Route 66 exhibits hosted by the Houghton and Pusey libraries as well—ultimately become relevant to that tired and stressed student in the next Harvard-affiliated library over. For it is so easy to forget that through each aged study carrel and hallowed hall there runs the great course of history, of a history of human life and human ability that has serendipitously converged upon this institution and upon us privileged students. And it is for that realization that a visit to the Harvard Library exhibitions becomes well worth that extra hour out of that stressful day.

Andrew Lin ’17 ([email protected]) wishes he could rock facial hair as voluptuous as Walter Crane’s grand handlebar moustache.