It’s a bibliophile’s dream: a single place that houses a Bible that went to the moon, complete with notes from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, a copy of Strength to Love signed by Martin Luther King Jr., original copies of rarities by Louisa May Alcott. It gets better, though — not only are all of these literary gems housed in the same space, but enthusiasts can interact with them. Touch the rough, heavy feel of hand-made papers, observe different acidities of inks and how they fade over time.
Maybe we can’t all go to the moon (yet) but you can hold an artifact that did.
Late last week Kennesaw State University’s Bentley Rare Book Museum opened to the public. Evolved from the university’s Bentley Rare Book Gallery, which was founded in 1986, this new institution is a different kind of thing altogether: a literary space aimed at getting its tomes into the hands of the people, both in the literal and figurative senses, with increased programming, free admission and ever-rotating exhibitions of its erudite, treasured collection.
With over 10,000 pieces, Bentley’s collection is simultaneously awe-inspiring and slightly overwhelming. An easier way to soak it all in is focusing on the museum’s strengths. Take, for instance, culinary history. Those interested in studying the intersection of cooking and book art will have a heyday in these collections — Hungry Bibliophiles: An Experiment in Utilitarian Bookmaking, for instance, takes a much deeper look at the subject, considering our emotional and physical ties to both food and artwork while also encouraging readers to think about the process of creation and where we can get away with not following the recipe. Relying very little on narrative, the book instead shows traces of use (such as coffee stains and margin notes) from the original versions to tell its story.
Other points of focus include Cherokee language materials, early printed books and medieval manuscript leaves, early editions of Chaucer and other authors and historical works from the state of Georgia. Oh, and the aforementioned artifacts from Apollo 14 and 16 space missions.
To bring us back down to Earth, ArtsATL got together with Dr. Tamara Livingston, Ph.D., the museum’s executive director, as well as Dr. Julia Skinner, the curator of the museum, to discuss their goals and vision for the museum.
ArtsATL: When the library was announced it was stated that your driving force was to make these books and archives available to a broad array of people. Can you expound upon how you plan to execute this mission?
Dr. Tamara Livingston: Historically, rare books are housed in collections where you have to be approved as a researcher in order to access materials. In most cases, archivists and rare book librarians work hard to entice students and faculty to access and use their collections, but often with limited results. Students and faculty are frequently intimidated by these materials and feel they are not equipped with the skills or time to incorporate them into their research, and more broadly, rarely do rare books institutions reach out to the community to engage with these works.
The Bentley Museum takes a completely different approach: we’re expanding our collection to reflect the diverse, collective histories of our communities, and rather than limiting engagement and passively hoping for researchers to come to us, we actively pursue nontraditional uses of the collection.
Our new, self-guided museum space is critical to this outreach in that it invites people who are not researchers, or even affiliated with a research institution, to engage with our collections in a comfortable, casual environment and without an appointment. Our on-site programming includes regular Open House sessions where the KSU and local communities are encouraged to look at, hold, feel and examine items from our collection, scaffolded by questions of production, use, access and interpretation.
The Bentley Museum’s outreach programming — where we bring the rare books into community spaces located outside our museum walls — allows us to interact and learn with our audiences in community centers, schools, senior homes and correctional facilities. This enables us to counter traditional inhibitions to rare books access, including transportation, admission and perception of who has the “right” to engage with these works.
Our hope is that by expanding our outreach to include those who haven’t encountered rare books before, our communities are encouraged to engage with their right to access that history and contribute their reflections, memories and insights to our exhibitions and programs.
ArtsATL: What makes the history of books so compelling? How do you hope to engage new audiences?
Dr. Julia Skinner: The guiding principle of the Bentley is that any patron or visitor from any walk of life can experience a meaningful connection with our collection. Through our emphasis on the history of the book, we can find art, science, economics, business, individual voices, collective voices, the status quo and the exceptional. Each book is the distillation and concentration of the work of a number of hands: through the ages, books were the products not just of authors but scribes, paper makers, ink makers, illuminators, binders, typesetters, printers, publishers, illustrators, consumers, collectors and book owners. Following production, the books collect the histories of people who engaged with the works through physical traces left behind, including fingerprints, marginalia, bookplates and inscriptions. The history of each book is continually unfolding, and by facilitating a space where our communities engage with the many layers of history and significance between the pages, they may appreciate that they, too, are an active part of the history of these books.
ArtsATL: I’ve heard that the library will allow students and visitors to be much more “hands-on” — can you tell me a bit more about that?
Skinner: We encourage a “hands-on” approach both physically and intellectually. Our on-site exhibitions feature interactive sections where people can handle reproductions of the tools and materials used to construct highlighted books and manuscripts. For instance, we have vellum reproductions for our opening exhibition, Getting Medieval.
During our Open Houses, visitors will directly engage with the rare books and their histories through Open Houses hosted by our emeritus curator, Robert Williams, and KSU Archivist, JoyEllen Freeman. Perhaps most importantly, in addition to examining the physical components of rare books, our outreach encourages community members to engage with the ideas and systems that influenced and produced these books over the years through handling both the physical and historical meanings of the works in our collection.
ArtsATL: Can you tell me about the off-site programming you have in store? That’s kind of a novel concept for a library, isn’t it? Forgive my terrible pun!
Skinner: It’s definitely novel for special collections, which often have limited staffing and restrictions on how materials can be used and don’t necessarily have the freedom to engage in the kinds of programs we’ll be doing at the Bentley Museum. By being a part of the Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books instead of traditional library structures, the Bentley Museum utilizes outreach and programmatic models more similar to museums, including outreach initiatives.
We have several community partnerships in place already, including with a local correctional facility as a part of prison education initiatives, and a low-income senior housing center. We also actively engage partners in the food service industry, both because this is one of the Bentley Museum’s collecting areas and because it offers people an alternate way to think about and interact with rare books. Eventide Brewery and the Bentley Museum are cohosting a Books and Brews event on May 17, where we pair beers with “tasting notes” of selections from our rare book collection.
For me, bringing rare books to the community isn’t prescriptive: I don’t want to come in and tell people what to think about a book. Instead, I want to share with them what I know about that work and its history, but primarily use the books as a way for people to find their own connections through discussion and interaction. Especially when we’re working with communities who have historically been denied access to these materials, it’s problematic to assume that we know what people need or want. This is part of why the community partnerships focus on programming series rather than on single events (although we do some of those as well).
Programming series provide the chance to bring in materials for a broad-focused initial gathering where we can learn more about what topics people are interested in and what learning styles they find most engaging, allowing us to create ongoing conversations that are flexible and responsive to our communities.
ArtsATL: What are some other rare book museums y’all draw inspiration from when envisioning this institution?
Livingston: There are a number of prestigious rare book collections with exhibition components that serve as inspiration, including the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., as well as academic libraries with large research collections of rare books, such as Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. We’ve also been inspired by the exhibitions produced by Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking.
Prior to the opening of the Bentley Museum, however, a rare book museum did not exist in metro Atlanta that combines curated rare book collections, on-site exhibitions, and dedicated outreach and community engagement. We look forward to working with our institutional, museum and community partners to expand that space.
ArtsATL: Any highlights from the collection? Personal favorites?
Skinner: At its inception, the Bentley Gallery had a very broad collecting focus: the history of the book in the English-speaking world. Since Fred Bentley and Robert Williams created this gallery as a teaching collection, we focused on breadth and representative samples rather than on exhaustive content-specific research areas.
Some of our new initiatives as the Bentley Museum are to build subject-specific collections, including culinary history, local and regional history and works from underrepresented voices. We include these new collecting areas into our exhibitions, including a personal favorite, Salvador Dali’s Les Dîners de Gala, which is part of Culinary Memory. Dali quotes Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as someone who laid a useful groundwork for understanding food but claims that he doesn’t go far enough in fostering an understanding of food because he was still tied to language and to Enlightenment thinking, and failed to include abstract, nonverbal creative expression. Setting Dali and Brillat-Savarin in conversation with our 1615 copy of Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife offers insights about gender roles and social practices.
Other favorites from the collection include a lunar bible, a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet, and original Cherokee Phoenix newspapers.
Livingston: We have an original King James Bible from 1611. I love the story of how it came to be, the fact that it was a translation done by a committee of unlikely collaborators, and the stunning typography and layout of the large folio pages that was “modern” (at the time) but intentionally made to look archaic to suggest an unbroken continuity with earlier translations and manuscript styles.
ArtsATL: Where do you envision the Museum five years from now? 10?
Livingston: In the next year we will add weekend hours and collection narratives based on visitor feedback. The physical space is small, which poses a challenge for large on-site gatherings, but creates the opportunity for us to invest in a strong community-driven outreach program over the first five years that is responsive to community needs and interests, and that moves us beyond envisioning the museum as a brick-and-mortar exhibition-only space.
In 10 years, we hope to build a network of resources, critical pedagogy and information networks to encourage expanded community outreach with our local rare books institutions and special collections. We have a strong institutional network already in place, and by emphasizing dynamic connections and interactions produced out of new, expanded access, Atlanta can be the leader in this progressive model of rare books museums.
The Bentley Rare Book Museum is free and open to the public, Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.