Library Societies Revisit Their ‘Flawed History’ | Way of life

The Philadelphia Library Company is the oldest lending library in the United States and the oldest cultural institution founded in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin and others in 1731.

Created primarily as a storage for books and manuscripts, there have always been objects of graphic arts such as illustrations, prints and finally photographs, but relatively recently the library established a department of graphic arts for catalog them. Catalog and store images on paper that have literally been stacked on open shelves for 240 years.

The library is now celebrating its 50th anniversary by displaying its flaws.

“The imperfect history” fulfills a double duty. One of the things the exhibit does is show visual, racial and gender bias that dates back hundreds of years, both intentionally and unintentionally.

A good example is the engraving of “Primrose: The Famous Mottled Boy” (1790) by Thomas Pole, an expatriate from Philadelphia with a long and successful career as a doctor in the United Kingdom. The image is of a black teenage slave from the West Indies named John “Bobby” Primrose, who had mottled skin, similar to vitiligo.

Although based in London, this figurine shows that Primrose is dressed in a primitive loincloth and set in a palm tree landscape reminiscent of the origins of the West Indies.

“This is not only a portrait of Bobby, but also an advertisement as it was to be displayed as a medical curiosity at Paul’s Anatomy Museum,” said Erica Piora, director of visual culture at the library. ..

Paul was not a member of the Library Society, but donated this print in 1799.

“At that time, he viewed the library as an archive of scientific and medical information,” Piora said. “This is a print strongly influenced by scientific and racial prejudices at the end of the 18th century. It acts as a library society on behalf of the racial and scientific prejudices of this era. . “

The second pillar of “the imperfect story” shows the institutional flaws of library societies over the course of about 300 years and how they have developed their own visual literacy over the years. ..

As an organization founded with an emphasis on books and books, it unexpectedly accumulated visual material, most of which was donated by wealthy white men. The creation of a graphic arts department to scrutinize what the library society has allowed librarians and curators to see the biases inherent in the collection.

One of Piora’s favorite images at the exhibition was the engraving of members of the Freemasonry Society circa 1860, which featured not only dozens of members of the society at the time, but also George Washington and Andrew Jackson.

“I fell in love with this impression,” said Piora. “George Washington is not alive, but he is on display in the Independence Hall boardroom.”

This print was commissioned by Mason’s companion Thomas Phoenix and appears to have been a tribute to an individual who was respected in society at the time. But for viewers today, he reads like a sea of ​​white faces.

All wear little white aprons. Mason’s ceremonial jewelry is reminiscent of a mason’s roots. In a more modern sense, dignified older men seem to wear miniskirts.

“I think it’s interesting. I don’t think that meant Thomas Phoenix was an interesting copy, ”Piora said. “Yes, they wear aprons and are both alive and dead. Yes, it’s a sea of ​​white men. I hate loving it, but I do. I do. Love this impression. “

The Library Society’s graphic art collection was donated by the Stevens-Cogdel / Sanders-Benning Portrait Collection in 1991 by an African-American family whose roots go back to slaves on an 18th-century plantation in North Carolina. South. Made a big change. The collection includes photographs, albums and visual material from the mid-19th century in black Philadelphia. The library is now widely known as an important repository of historic black visual material.

“Incomplete History” describes the essence of visual literacy: who tries to communicate through images, who they target, and how sensitivities have been applied over the past 50 years.

“When the graphic arts sector was launched in 1971, it was a time of social and political upheaval. People were skeptical of our democratic system, ”said Piloa. “When I started to think about this exhibition, Donald Trump had just been elected. It was a similar climate and I really doubted our democratic system, racism and the rise of misogyny. [Trump’s] His inauguration was larger than that of Barack Obama, but looking side by side I said, “No, Donald, your nomination doesn’t look as big as Obama’s. It was like.

Although he claimed that the inauguration of Sean Spicer during the time of Trump and his spokesperson was the busiest in U.S. history, the 2017 votes were about a third of those of Obama in 2009. This is an estimate supported by aerial photographs.

Some images of “imperfect history” seem harmless on the surface. An invitation to dine at the Philadelphia Society of Etchers, an association of expert illustrators, is printed. The 1892 social event card depicts a naked woman appearing to float from an ink bottle.

At first, it may seem like an announcement simply explained in the specialist association example, but it gets complicated when viewers find out that the Etchers Association is an all-male organization and explicitly prohibits the participation of female artists. Will be.

“She is not representative of the Greek muses who inspire these artists. She is a naked woman you might think of and a charming lady from the late 19th century. That’s ideal, ”said curator Sarah Weatherwax. “I just saw the invitation as a sign of clubness, excluding women from many occasions.”

The “imperfect story” contains a prompt in the text on the wall, so that the visitor thinks that a particular image was created and who intended to see it. I will guide you. The show reveals how the visual culture of the library society has changed over the years.

“After co-hosting all of these topics, I was excited to improve my familiar skills,” said Weatherwax, who has worked for the library company for over 25 years. “I hope I didn’t write the same label I wrote two years ago. It’s really exciting to think that I’m not too engrossed in the material that I’ve seen for years, years and years. I can still find a new way of thinking. “

“The Incomplete Story” will be on display at the Library Society until April 8. A visual literacy symposium is scheduled for March.

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About Jennifer Schuman

Jennifer Schuman

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