On: The Polonsky Exhibition at the New York Public Library

Bebeto Matthews/AP

On a windy Sunday afternoon, the entrances were lined with tourists or students looking for a quiet place to escape the adjacent Times Square or the general overwhelming sounds and smells of New York. Walking up the marble steps of the library on 5th Ave, two thoughts immediately came to mind: how it would feel to see this building framed with dirt-paved roads. And if Dan Aykroyd was onto something about a ghost in the basement. There was some hilarity in entering such a historically significant building in jeans and a baseball cap that read “10–4 Daddy-O”. That I’m somehow desecrating a once enforced dress code or the fact that my mere existence in the space would have been frowned upon just by being a woman. Go figure.

As I registered for a ticket on a touch screen, I wondered if they really needed my email and phone number to gain access to a free exhibit. It’s crazy how regularly I give out that information and not think about the privacy I crave. As I entered an hour and a half later, I glanced over the pamphlet handed to me by a smiling security guard and wondered where the busts of the Venus africaine would be displayed. You would think art so prominently displayed and marketed would be front and center. Quite the opposite, as the bill of rights mockingly sits in the center of the room. At the same time, Charles Henri Joseph Cordier’s work hides in a corner, almost tucked away or needing to be found rather than proudly displayed front and center. Call it the “flow of the art” or how the exhibit was curated. It felt disingenuous.

Walking in, the first thing I noticed was the number of books and journals on display. Shocker since it was in a library. But, I often associate journals and diaries with something that collects dust on my shelves. I often find myself daunted at the task of getting started and destroying something that took days, maybe months, to create. I instead look at whether my thoughts are worthy enough to grace a blank page to be judged later by others. Whether it’s my future self reflecting back on this chapter of my life or my mother coming across it in a move from our childhood home. But then I look at James Baldwin’s letter to his sister written on a legal pad. The handwriting isn’t perfect; there is an inserted part of the sentence lifted above a line; and a random squiggle on the left of the page. And I smiled. Because my fears of supposedly destroying a page were someone else’s display of passion exhibited behind a glass barrier. I was celebrating the courage it took for someone to see a blank page and canvas and make it into something worth preserving and displaying. Something worth celebrating.

This inspiration could have been brought up because the letter is juxtaposed with one of my favorite items that inspired literature. You could even say it inspired a generation and still holds valuable lessons today. We all have a childhood toy or a blanket that we hold near and dear to our hearts. Some of us hold onto them until they are merely scraps or filled with holes. I couldn’t help but gawk at the display of a particular yellow bear and his companions of the hundred-acre woods. The world won’t know of the importance of my stuffed frog, but I think it’s magical that a man was able to make his child’s toy something of note for generations. I grinned because one of the first gifts I received from my godparents was a giant Pooh Bear. Hearing them retell the story of me screaming and (ironically) bear-hugging it to the ground is one of the few memories of my childhood in New York. But looking at the stuffed animals behind the glass display, I think about Christopher Robin’s lost childhood, being a figurehead for others’ imaginations while his was robbed for profit. The descendants of A.A. Milne are alive today. Still, it’s sad that this particular teddy bear, whose likeness has been replicated for the masses, won’t feel the warmth of a child’s embrace again.

This sadness isn’t just reserved for the stuffed animals on display. It makes you think of all the treasures locked up in an Indiana Jones-styled warehouse or hidden below our feet. Some books whose spines will forever be shut, only opened for those with money or the resources to access them. That sheet music won’t be played by musicians. But there is a duality that these selected pieces are displayed rather than locked up in a basement, doomed with the fate of maybe being discovered by Ben Stiller to further the plot of the next Night at the Museum remake. I understand that there is some preservation involved for these treasures to be enjoyed by future generations. But there is something called the internet. Maybe digitizing works that won’t be displayed would help the public understand the knowledge being withheld from us.

I usually don’t enter a museum with a feeling of sadness. Maybe it had to do with the weather, my coffee didn’t have its usual kick in the morning, or my jeans being a little tighter this week. I blame the Oreos. But this being the first permanent exhibition of the New York Public Library, I went in with the expectation of learning something new. To be astounded by the works of art on display. Don’t get me wrong, I was inspired by seeing one of the first published works of Shakespeare on display. But, as I looked around at the small paragraphs paired with the pieces, I couldn’t help but admire the collection of people I shared the room with that day. Maybe I stayed at a piece longer than I would have because the previous person admired it longer than I necessarily would have. Or I overheard someone talking about an artist’s work and how that inspired something else of theirs that wasn’t displayed at this exhibit. The knowledge of others is also a curation of art within itself. The people who chose to be in that room simultaneously on the same day that you did. Who had the same impulses as you. And who decided to act on them. That’s something to admire as well. I urge you to take a moment to look at the people you share a space with the next time you visit a museum. You might be surprised by what you find.

The Polonsky Exhibition is permanently on display in Gottesman Hall in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library on 5th Ave.




Adding a little bit of chaos to the art we consume. Just some food for thought.

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