Curating at the Lilly: Week Six

I’ve now reached the midway point in my internship. I feel as though I have settled into a slow but steady rhythm of progress. The end is coming into view. I just need to maintain my momentum.

Our guest curator and subject expert for the Baker Street Irregulars exhibit spent a few days in the Reading Room working through our mountain of Sherlockian books and Hollinger boxes. I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as working with him was concerned. Would I remain at his side for hours on end? Or would I only be summoned when he had a question or request? In the end, we adapted to his personality and style. He seemed to prefer to go through the material on his own, and we checked on him periodically to make sure things were going well.

The guest curator thoroughly enjoyed the material we had pulled for him. Looking back, I’d say that we succeeded in selecting useful and relevant Sherlockian Lilly material for him to review (although we might have narrowed things down a bit further; he seemed so exhausted after each day of sifting through hundreds of papers and about 30 or so books that I was feeling exhausted for him!) One of the books I had paged from the stacks the previous week for his visit included a poorly deteriorated dust-jacket. The Lilly has another copy of the same book (same edition) whose dust-jacket is a little worn at the edges but is otherwise intact. I decided to give our guest curator the option to examine both, even though the latter was clearly the superior choice to exhibit from an aesthetic point of view; they both made it to his pile in the Reading Room.

My decision to page both was the correct one. The copy with the poor dust-jacket, as the guest curator explained to me, is actually a rare artifact tied to a momentous event in the BSI’s history: the great Trilogy Dinner of 1944. The annual BSI dinner of ’44 celebrated the publication of a trifecta of Sherlockian literature: Edgar W. Smith’s Profile by Gaslight, Christopher Morley’s Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Watson, and Ellery Queen’s The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. That year, BSI members received copies of Profile by Gaslight with a distinct tipped-in leaf, and our guest curator identified the book with the terrible dust-jacket as the copy David Randall received. David Randall was both an early member of the BSI and the first director of the Lilly Library.

This moment of my internship reminded me of the definition of a rare book that A. W. Pollard provided for the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A rare book appeals to at least one of three things: the eye, the mind, or the imagination. I think the same could be said for a quality exhibit, and I’d definitely like for our intern exhibit to speak to all three. But I think I need to be wary of the prejudice of the eye. I could have so easily dismissed the tattered dust-jacket as an eyesore and robbed our guest curator of one of his greatest finds during his Lilly visit.

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