When a cultural facility attains a certain age, every facelift is billed as a return to the original. So it is with the Huntington Library’s refreshed Main Exhibition Hall. The rennovation, credited to Gordon Chun Design and Karina White, has pulled up the carpet, revealing vintage cork and marble floors. Henry Huntington’s octagonal chandeliers have been refabricated from photos.
As always, the installation is a walk-through timeline of Western culture, from late-medieval England to 20th-century California. It’s still structured around a small group (now 12) of prize objects like the manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, the Gutenberg Bible, and Audubon’s Birds. In the new installation every anchor object is surrounded by display cases of books and documents more or less related to it. Some tell stories about the anchor. Others sketch themes contemporary in time and space.
Martin Luther’s Passional Christi and Antichristi—open to Cranach’s woodcut of the Pope tumbling into Hell—rests next to Henry VIII’s rebuttal, and rebuttals to the rebuttal. It’s a 16th-century celebrity Twitter war. Another case annotates the Canterbury Tales with period documents relevant to various of Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims. A property deed demonstrates that widows (such as the Wife of Bath) had privileges not granted to married and single women, such as the right to sell land.
Gone are the dodgy portraits of historical and literary figures, many acquired by Henry Huntington for didactic purposes. (John Milton coined the term “didactic,” as you’ll learn from the Paradise Lost station.)
New: Lots of retina touchscreens and audio. Hate ‘em, and they’re mercifully easy to ignore. Love ‘em, and you’re set. There are photographs by Carleton Watkins, Andrew Russell, and Edward Weston. Overall there seems to be a greater variety of objects on display. Above is Jack London’s manuscript of The Sea Wolf, carbonized in a bank vault during the fire after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The new space has places to sit down, an innovation embraced by very few library museums. Two chairs surround a newly created window with a view of a garden fountain.