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Treasures of the Manhattan Library: NYPL Puts Its Curious Collection on Display

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The entrance to the new exhibit at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

New York Public Library/Max Touhey | www.metouhey.com

When most people think of Charles Dickens, they don’t think of a dead cat’s paw.  

But that feline foot — and the letter opener it’s attached to —  are on display at the New York Public Library’s main branch on 42nd Street in Manhattan. 

Along with Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, a key to the reservoir the library was built upon and almost 250 other artifacts from around the world, it is part of the new “Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures.”

The collection highlights unique and curious items from the 126-year-old library system’s extensive archives, representing over 4,000 years of human history.

A lock of Beethoven’s hair from the Treasures exhibit at the New York Public Library.

Robert Kato/The New York Public Library

The exhibit is divided into nine themes: Beginnings, Performance, Explorations, Fortitude (but Patience is notably absent!), The Written Word, The Visual World, Childhood, Belief and New York City.

Sara Spink, one of the exhibit’s curators, said the idea for nine themes was dictated by the design of the exhibition hall. “It seemed like nine fit very naturally in the architecture itself.”

As for the themes, “We didn’t want to impose them on the collections, but sort of have the collections inform what umbrellas our materials could fit under,” Spink said.

In the Details

Though the exhibition hall is small compared to other museums in New York, it contains enough history to overwhelm even the most seasoned visitor. The elaborate “Triumphal Arch” woodcut print by Albrecht Dürer alone could merit return visits.

“I love these exhibits at the library, and I’ve really missed them during the pandemic,” said Lisa Huberman, from Astoria. Huberman lingered in the New York City section, taking in old photographs of Central Park and storyboards from “West Side Story” and “Guys and Dolls.”

The exhibit includes an 1811 plan for Manhattan, Sept. 24, 2021.

Aria Velasquez/THE CITY

“It really forces you to lean in and take in the details,” Huberman said while tilting forward to look at a circa-1909 photo of an apartment once declared “one of the dirtiest and most unsanitary rooms ever found by the Tenement House Department.”

If you’re worried about missing out on “Treasures,” don’t: The new permanent exhibition will run at least 75 years, funded “by a generous gift from philanthropist Dr. Leonard Polonsky,” according to the NYPL. 

But even though the exhibit is free, visitors must have a scheduled ticket, which can be booked through the website.

According to the curators, some of the artifacts will be rotated out of the displays after one or two years to make room for more of what the library has to offer. With over 56 million items in the NYPL’s possession, there is a lot to go through.

The oldest items in the collection are a group of cuneiform tablets dating to the third or second millennia BCE.

Meanwhile, “Treasures” also prompts the visitor to ponder: What relics of city life today might be showcased behind glass in the year 2096. A “Greek key” coffee cup from a local diner? Bodega receipts? A MetroCard? A mask?

Items of interest in each section

  • Beginnings: a 1821 copy of the Mexican Declaration of Independence
  • Performance: a lock of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair
  • Explorations: the Hunt-Lenox Globe from 1508, one of the earliest depictions of the Western Hemisphere
  • Fortitude: the 1937 edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book
  • The Written Word: Malcolm X’s briefcase
  • The Visual World: “Street Music - Jenkins Band” by Norman Lewis
  • Childhood: an umbrella given to P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins
  • Belief: a first edition of the King James Bible from the early 17th Century
  • New York City: The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the map that laid out the future development of Manhattan up to 155th Street

The Treasures exhibition at the New York Public Library.

Max Touhey/New York Public Library (www.metouhey.com)

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