On October 6, when “The Great Experiment” opened, people were lined up by the hundreds outside the great hall of the Huntington Library where it is on display until next June. Before it is packed up and moved to the Morgan Library in New York in September, probably as many as half a million will have come to see it, including thirty or forty thousand schoolchildren. What do people get out of viewing an exhibition of words on paper in glass cases? There are a few portraits and engravings, a bust, a statue, some illustrations from books, some odd pieces of silverware, china, and furniture, but the exhibition hinges on about fifty documents, mostly letters, written by George Washington. His writing is clear, if a little faded, legible enough even to someone not familiar with eighteenth-century handwriting. But the documents are under glass, where only one side of a page can be shown, and no one of them is crucial to an understanding of the man’s life and career. His writings in the thirty-nine volumes published by John C. Fitzpatrick from 1931 to 1944 include 17,000 items. The definitive edition underway at Charlottesville since 1968 will include many more. The Huntington itself has five hundred. So what we have on exhibit is a very small sample indeed. And yet it is a safe bet that more people will look at the sample, probably reading only scraps here and there, than will make their way through any larger selection in print or through a biography of the man, even the excellent brief one (about 45,000 words) by John Rhodehamel for his catalog of the exhibition he curated.

The items on display are listed at the back of the catalog. There would be no point in attaching a detailed description of each, because no one of them matters that much in itself. They do include a copy of the famous Farewell Address (printed, but with Washington’s handwritten marginal notes), certainly the most significant state paper he ever put his name to. And Rhodehamel, who previously compiled the Library of America’s volume on Washington, has picked out enough to cover his participation in all the great events and issues of his times. They show him as a young lieutenant colonel on the expedition to the Ohio Country in 1754 where he provoked the skirmish that eventuated in England’s Seven Years’ War with France. They show him taking command of the Continental Army in 1775 and accepting the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. They show him worrying about the collapse of the Union in the 1780s and launching the new government in 1789. And they show both his dislike of slavery and his dependence on it. But it would not be hard to pick another fifty that would serve the same purpose. What principally distinguishes these from the rest of the Washington corpus is their location in the vaults of the Huntington and Morgan libraries. The exhibition borrows artifacts from the Smithsonian, from Mount Vernon, and from some private collections, but no papers from the major repository in the Library of Congress or anywhere else. That the Huntington has designed a full and informative representation of Washington’s life and career from its own holdings and those on deposit in the Morgan tells us something both about Washington and about the exhibitions that great American libraries have been mounting in recent years.

First about Washington. It seems unlikely that any other famous figure of the American past could be fairly depicted through so small or so random a sample of his writings. Take his two contemporaries, Franklin and Jefferson. It would require many more than fifty items selected from the whole bulk of surviving papers of either of them to suggest the range of their interests and the development over time of their ideas, political, aesthetic, and scientific. Their private lives and personal affairs intersected continually with their public functions. Getting to know them means pursuing them through a dazzling succession of activities, both public and private. Washington comes to us as a public man, to be understood in his public life. From the time we can first observe him, in his early twenties, he was already disciplining himself to conform to the standards of behavior designed to win him the public recognition he achieved, first as a military officer, later as a statesman. It was less a matter of ambition or vanity than of honor, a consuming need to find his own self-respect in the approval, first of his peers, ultimately of the world. The stages of his life were to be measured in the successive challenges that public developments placed before him. There are ups and downs in what happened to him but no ups and downs in him.

To read the whole of Washington’s surviving writings is to follow not the growth of a mind but the fulfillment of a promise to himself, so faithfully carried out that it leaves one with all the awe that the author assiduously cultivated. His extraordinary consistency and decisiveness, reflected in everything he wrote and did, explain why his countrymen were so ready to thrust their own problems on him, so that his destiny became synonymous with theirs. His honor would allow him to decline them only when declining was the honorable thing to do, as when he rebuked his officers at the close of the Revolutionary War for trying to fit him to a throne, or when he refused a third term as president. Washington can be portrayed in fifty documents, from every point in his career, because they all show the same man, always himself, always honorable, and nearly always honored.


But if the documents had simply been laid out in succession with their identifying captions, even with the aid of the available audio cassettes explaining them and the biography at hand in the catalog, it is doubtful that the expected crowds would appear. To be sure, people would come and will come simply to pay tribute to the man who stands for everything that their country ideally represents, especially at a time when honor seems to have fled every branch of their government. They will come to learn more about the man behind the familiar figurehead. They will come for vicarious experience of a better time. But what will make that experience accessible and draw people to it in the expected numbers is a carefully crafted design that makes the exhibition a work of art in itself, to be experienced as such.

On the left as you enter is a specially constructed wall, nearly a hundred feet long and covered with what, in another context, might be called graffiti. Carved as though in marble along the top, dividing the wall and Washington’s life into periods, are a series of dates: 1732-64, 1765-83, 1784-88, 1789-97, 1798-99. Below these, inscribed in large print, are the events of the time and of Washington’s life, broken irregularly here and there by blown-up portraits, maps, pages of books, and epigrammatic quotations by and about Washington. Stretched out beneath them, along the entire length of the wall, stands a single sentence, in Washington’s hand, the whole expanded to half a foot high, and reading: “I confess to you candidly that I can foresee no evil greater than disunion.” It is taken from a letter of August 22, 1785, when Washington saw that the country he had wrested from the British was falling to pieces, each of the separate states going its own way heedless of responsibility to the others.

We know that the evil he foresaw was prevented only by his willingness to preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and then to preside over the government it created. To walk past the wall is to watch Washington shape the country by his consistent pursuit of honor. And there, in the cases standing nearby and along the opposite wall, are the papers and memorabilia that he once held in his hand while he did it.

It takes a little more than an hour to stroll through the exhibition, turning from the wall to examine the papers, read the captions, and listen to the cassette. It would take longer to read all the documents themselves or rather the parts of them exposed behind the glass, but few will care to do that while standing in the throng. It is hard to believe that the purpose of the exhibition is to offer the opportunity to read fragments of what has long been available in print. Why, then, have we been invited here? One purpose is surely educational, to remind us how much Washington did and to demonstrate it with firsthand evidence. The Huntington has extended this educational function not only by its biographical catalog but also by producing a special guide for schoolteachers and students. It is divided into a series of eight “lessons” to prepare for a visit, with excerpts from the exhibition’s documents, along with questions and exercises for class discussion. Accompanying it is a videotape presenting Washington’s life in paintings and engravings, with a voiceover in which Rhodehamel condenses his biography into less than fifteen minutes.

Schoolchildren will come with their teachers, willingly or not, but what will they get and what will the rest of us get from the trip that could not be had by sitting at home with a book? Biographies of Washington come in every length, and the exhibition is a kind of biography in its coverage of Washington’s career. What it provides and surely is intended to provide is a sense of closeness to the man that cannot be conveyed on the printed page. The documents can be read for what they have to say, but they are there in the same capacity as the dishes and candlesticks Washington used, the chair he sat in, the tuft of his hair in a locket. The words and pictures on the wall provide the minimum of biography needed to set the mood; the words inscribed in ancient ink on ancient paper are there to be experienced as relics of the man.


It is easy to scoff at such an experience, but to do so is to miss something that professional historians have been missing ever since they became professional. For historical scholars as such the relics may have little to offer. If they care enough about the subject to make a visit, they already know more about the man and his time than the visit can tell them, and relics are their stock in trade. But if an exhibition works, as this one does, it will induce something not expressed in words, something that imparts consciousness of the past at a level which is not merely sentimental but not simply intellectual either. The cumulative effect of walking through the exhibition is to sense, however remotely, the presence of the man, a man who, more than any other single person, still dominates the consciousness of the nation that now dominates, however hesitantly, the whole world. To understand his role in history and the issues he confronted may require extensive reading and studying. But to experience his presence is something different, a sensation open to historians who handle his papers but for them an incidental byproduct, not quite the objective of the monographs and biographies in which they try to make sense out of what he and his contemporaries did. The exhibition furnishes an experience that is less intellectual than affective and designed to that end.

Which brings us to the question of what libraries are up to in mounting exhibitions like this. Traditionally libraries have existed to preserve books and documents for people to read. The large ones have always had a few glass cases to display their special treasures to casual visitors. The Huntington formerly had its priceless Gutenberg Bible and Ellesmere Chaucer permanently on view, in a section of the library where readers seldom ventured. But in the past thirty or forty years the great American libraries—the Huntington, the Morgan, the John Carter Brown, the American Antiquarian Society, the Newberry, the Folger, the New York Public, and the Library of Congress, none of them except the John Carter Brown associated with a university—have assumed a public role that makes them much more than repositories of books and papers.

Part of this new direction has been for the libraries to solicit scholars to use their holdings. Where librarians once guarded the books and papers under their care with a jealous eye to preserve them against the dangers that handling might entail, librarians now, in effect, pay people to come and handle them. All the libraries mentioned except the Morgan have programs to attract readers to their doors. For example, the Huntington has spent $750,000 this past year on fellowships distributed among 120 different scholars to enable them to spend from one to nine months there. The New York Public Library is offering fellowships at its new “Center for Scholars and Writers.” Public and private foundations supply some of the funds, but the library dispenses them, devoting long hours and days of staff time to select the best-qualified applicants. The recipients form a community of scholars in passage, continually changing, continually stimulated by new arrivals and new ideas, meeting casually in the corridors and formally in seminars, freed from the responsibilities of the universities from which most of them come and to which they will return. The great libraries have become think tanks for the humanities, indispensable adjuncts to the academy, and recognized as such in the support they receive not only from private foundations but from government agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities.

But subsidizing readers is only one phase of the changes libraries have undergone. Public lectures, concerts, conferences, and, above all, exhibitions have become major activities, in which libraries bypass the academy to reach a wider constituency. Exhibitions have grown ever larger, more numerous, and more expensive. “The Great Experiment” cost two million dollars, and the Huntington simultaneously mounted a smaller one on Jack London, with seventy-nine items from its collection of 30,000 London papers, books, magazines, and photographs. The Newberry has just closed an exhibition on Chicago in 1848 and will shortly open one on alphabets. The Folger has closed one on early modern maps and opened one on George Romney. The Library of Congress has closed one on religion in the early Republic and opened one on Sigmund Freud.

Library exhibitions are evolving as a new genre of communication. Their design and purpose have not yet been defined or clearly articulated. The established conventions of art, music, architecture, or literature do not apply. Exhibitions have to be experienced on the move, not sitting (as in a library!) or standing before a painting or a building. As the aesthetics of freeway design have to assume viewers traveling at sixty miles an hour rather than standing still, exhibitions have to assume people on the move, however sporadically, and they first have to be moved into the exhibitions.

Thomas Hartman, who designed the Washington exhibition that Rhodehamel curated, faced as his venue a huge hall, funereally darkened by continuous walnut paneling on all sides. To draw people in, he not only created the wall already mentioned on one side but hid the paneling on the other sides too with unadorned white walls that give lightness without offering visual competition. Because people, once inside, could be expected, as he puts it, to ricochet here and there, he divided the hall into what he calls rooms, each representing one of the periods of Washington’s life, but divided only loosely by standing cases containing the documents and artifacts. People can move freely among the imaginary rooms, putting together the pieces of Washington’s life by glancing at the guiding time line of the wall on the left. The passages are wide enough to avoid bottlenecks. Each room is a kind of exhibit in itself, and so in a measure is each case. They all have different color interiors, and the documents grouped in a given case are widely spaced, all related to each other not only chronologically but by theme.

A good design may help to convey an educational message, like the stages of Washington’s career or the character of his achievements, but through its design the exhibition can also become an experience not wholly didactic, something to be enjoyed sensually, theatrically, even spiritually. And libraries, like museums, have been learning to cater to this experience by bringing in experts like Hartman (of I.Q. Magic, Inc., in Santa Monica) to create it. Because curators of books and manuscripts are seldom trained in design, libraries have added designers to their staffs or have turned to firms that have developed in the last ten or fifteen years to specialize in library and museum exhibitions. The Newberry, which was one of the first independent libraries to emphasize its public role, began using outside design firms with its exhibition “King Arthur: Word and Image” in 1988. It has been using them for major exhibitions ever since. As Ruth Hamilton, in charge of exhibitions there, points out, the viewing public, accustomed to the carefully designed graphics watched daily on television and computer screens (including documentaries quite comparable to exhibitions), expects something more than a collection of objects under glass. And other libraries have turned more and more to professionals, as the Huntington has done. The New York Public Library, which usually employs its own design department, first brought in an outside firm for its centennial exhibit in 1995. And the practice has become international. The new British Library has employed Ivor Heal Design, Ltd. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris will open the design of a new exhibition to a competition among three different European firms.

A good design can give an exhibition the appeal and power that books alone can seldom reach. And the increasing role of exhibitions in libraries formerly dedicated simply to reading has given them a public voice that raises questions they never before had to consider. What a well-designed exhibition can present in a couple of highly charged hours has to be not only informative but interpretative, and the interpretation comes with the authority of the relics so artfully displayed. Curators, like historians, strive for objectivity, but they have to select and simplify far more drastically than in a book, and the resulting subjectivity is obscured by the authenticity of the objects and the lure of the design in which they have been placed. Because an exhibition’s interpretation thus pronounced carries such power, it can provoke surprisingly violent protests from those who find it unfair that they cannot present a conflicting interpretation with similar authority. The thesis of a book can be answered with another book, but how do you answer an exhibition? We have already witnessed the angry outcry against the original Enola Gay/Hiroshima exhibition at the Smithsonian. The Freud exhibition at the Library of Congress drew a storm of protests from anti-Freudians from the moment the plans for it were announced.

Fortunately for the Huntington there are not many anti-Washingtonians, and the curator has done his best to disarm them, especially in the full treatment he has given to the fact that Washington held large numbers of slaves throughout his life. The index to the catalog biography contains no fewer than fifteen entries under slavery. The exhibition includes an illustration of a slave ship (though Washington was not engaged in the slave trade) and a letter in which he arranged for the capture of a runaway slave. These are offset by letters expressing his intention never to buy another slave, his wish that slavery be abolished by law, and his will emancipating his slaves after his and Martha’s death. More letters on the subject exist in the full body of Washington’s writings, but proportionately far fewer. The attention to a sensitive subject testifies to a recognition that the exhibition places the library in the public arena, subject to public judgment.

It is perhaps too soon to say whether exhibitions should enjoy something like academic freedom. Because they are so unanswerable in kind, it is understandable that they should arouse the kind of ideological hostility, almost an odium theologicum, that confronted the Freud exhibition. No curator wishes to have his interpretation or its design dictated by partisan critics or to make it so bland that nobody cares. And while the Huntington has chosen a relatively uncontroversial topic in Washington, as it did in its only other large exhibition, on Lincoln, three years ago, the past is full of episodes that invite partisan passion. The Newberry escaped it in 1992 by enlisting Native American consultants for the potentially explosive “America in 1492.” But the Museum of the City of New York encountered it in 1996 in planning an exhibition on the Irish in New York, and the Museum of American Art in Washington met with it in 1991 in an exhibition on the American West.

The interpretation embodied in an exhibition need not necessarily be considered as carrying the endorsement of the institution mounting it, any more than the interpretation offered of a subject by a university professor is so considered. But thus far library exhibitions have been identified closely with their sponsors, and libraries expect such an identification as a way of winning and keeping public recognition and support. Every aspect of the new outreach to the public has been costly, eating into endowments and requiring a corresponding outreach for funds. Exhibitions on the scale of “The Great Experiment” are a calculated financial risk. They are seldom undertaken without outside assistance from foundations, corporations, and government agencies, as well as private donors. But they are very labor-intensive for the library staff and strain any library’s budget. A library has no large body of alumni or alumnae on which to draw, and the exhibition, whatever else it may do or be, has to be a means of extending its constituency. To offend by presenting an unpopular or controversial slant on a familiar figure or topic could defeat the purpose. Hence a kind of self-censorship places limits on a curator; and outside pressures from interested parties are more threatening than they would be at a university library, where an exhibition might claim a share in accepted principles of academic freedom.

The Washington exhibition is winning friends for the Huntington and the Morgan. Although Washington’s presidency provoked bitter partisan controversy in its closing years, some of it deserved, as the catalog biography acknowledges, to attack Washington now would be pretty close to attacking the country itself. Washington can safely be presented as a great man, because he was one, and it only adds human dimensions to him to admit his participation in the sins of his time.

But if library exhibitions are to flourish as a genre, they will have to deal with subjects that raise some group’s hackles, usually in advance, as the exhibitions on Freud and on the Irish in New York have done. Conflict can be beneficial, in alerting curators and designers to the complexity of a subject. But it will require extraordinary daring for libraries to resist organized ethnic and ideological pressures. The Washington exhibition demonstrates the effectiveness of the library’s new genre. If curators and designers are to make the most of it, their institutions will have to define and defend a new kind of freedom to exhibit.

This Issue

March 4, 1999