Five verbs make up the foundation of the “Nineteen Nineteen” exhibition, which opened at the Huntington Library last weekend as one of the institution’s first presentations in observance of its centennial year.
In highlighting a century of collecting and exhibiting artwork, preserving and researching texts and cultivating and sharing plants and trees, the Huntington compiled a dynamic show of artifacts that are in some way connected to the pivotal year 1919 — when Henry and Arabella Huntington signed the legal documents creating the institution. The collected items are displayed according to one-word themes: “Fight,” “Return,” “Map,” “Move” and “Build.”
“A lot’s happening in 1919, so we thought verbs were the way to go,” explained James Glisson, a “Nineteen Nineteen” co-curator, at a special press preview on Friday.
The “Fight” portion of the exhibition showcases an obvious 1919 milestone — the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I — but includes references to other sorts of conflicts, including the American women’s suffrage movement, fallout from the global influenza pandemic and the Red Summer, the grisly American season that saw more than 200 killed in riots and lynchings targeting black Americans.
In “Return,” visitors will find literary and musical accounts of World War I — the Great War, as it was called — created by those who, well, returned from it. These artifacts include contributions by the more than 200,000 black soldiers who fought for and returned to an America that had yet to grant them full civil rights.
“Map” highlights the litany of changes spawned by the end of the war, most obviously in the way the Treaty of Versailles redrew European boundaries and also the relatively arbitrary manner in which the Sykes-Picot Agreement carved the Ottoman Empire into colonial states. You’ll also find a variety of maps and charts concerning the development of Southern California and the original photographs of the moon and constellations from the Mt. Wilson Observatory.
In a way, “Move” picks up where “Map” ends. As an obvious nod to Henry Huntington’s own Pacific Electric Railway, “Move” includes a 39-foot-long, one-of-a-kind map detailing the real estate holdings and transportation lines spanning downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena.
“Build,” the final section, more specifically chronicles the dawn of the library, including a number of historical texts — such as the original manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography — along with the charts used by William Hertrich as he landscaped the Huntington’s famed botanical gardens.
Co-curator Jennifer Watts said she and Glisson strove to include artifacts from the library, art museum and gardens in illustrating “Nineteen Nineteen.”
“They’re all three very strong collecting entities and we wanted that represented in the exhibition,” Watts said. “Huntington was, as you know, an aggressive collector. He built an amazing collection in 20 years with his voracious collecting and wealth. Most of the things you’ll see, with exceptions, have been purchased and acquired after Huntington’s time, because we are a very robust research institution. There will be things you see in the gallery that we’ve acquired in the last year, as part of our research agenda.”
Glisson added that, in designing this exhibition, he and Watts made an effort to spotlight artistic, literary and developmental achievements by minority Americans, an effort made easy given the plethora of social activity occurring around 1919.
“The Huntington right now is really interested in looking outward and being open, inclusive and part of what is, I think, this massive national recognition of the need to open up all cultural institutions everywhere to diversify in a big way,” he said.