Peering at Joseph Bonaparte’s traveling toiletry kit, with its scissors, files, brushes, and mysterious cutlery, Peter Conn, director of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, pointed to a small metal stick with a curved prong and said it reminded him of a “brain hook.” Adding quickly, “For the purposes of mummification.”
“I’m glad I saw that,” he added.
It’s fairly safe to say there are no actual brain hooks in the Athenaeum’s unusual collection and probably nothing to do with mummies, although the venerable Philadelphia institution was nearly mummified itself before a decades-long turnaround revivified its tradition-encrusted, paneled reading rooms.
But this old place, situated in a National Historic Landmark building on Washington Square, is very well known in the special-collections library world, and it has just forged a unique, high-profile partnership with Penn Libraries. Now, users of the vast university system can gain access to the Athenaeum’s small, focused collection, and vice versa.
Beyond that, the prestigious John Soanes Museum Foundation, an arm of the museum in London devoted to the legacy of the eclectic 19th-century architect, has just selected the Athenaeum for its annual honors award.
“We greatly admire the visionary leadership of the Athenaeum; your acquisition of significant collections over the past two centuries; and in recent times, your transformation from an early 19th [century] special collections library into a vibrant institution that has become an integral part of the cultural fabric of 21st century Philadelphia and beyond,” Soanes Foundation chairman Paul L. Whalen wrote in a letter to Conn.
“Your investment in preservation, expansion, and accessibility of resources has made the Athenaeum a vital resource for our profession as well as an informative pleasure for enthusiasts.”
The award will be given at an October dinner in New York City.
“It’s very gratifying,” said Conn, director of the Athenaeum for three years.
In the glow of the letter, Conn was eager to show off some hidden treasures on a recent afternoon.
The Athenaeum offers multiple public programs and rotating exhibitions largely based on its own collection. And, all day, every day, one of the most extraordinary indoor spaces in the city is free and open for reading — the light-filled second-floor reading room.
Just wend your way past the Alexander Milne Calder maquette of William Penn atop City Hall, past the Napoleon death mask, the Bonaparte china, past the portraits of Thomas Walter and his two wives, the 14-foot-tall Isaiah Lukens case clock, and the members lounge with actual physical Inquirers laid on a round table, ascend the dramatic staircase, and there it is — the reading room with its wood, its green shades, its light, and its books.
For many, the Athenaeum’s John Notman-designed Italianate building is the institution’s greatest artifact.
“There’s really nothing like it,” said Conn.
Conn is quick to acknowledge that the institution he now heads and the building holding it benefited greatly from the decades-long resuscitation performed by former Athenaeum board president George Vaux X and longtime director Roger W. Moss, who led the Athenaeum out of its years of somnambulance and gave it a purpose.
Moss, who became director in 1968, took over an institution held up largely by the fact that it was already there. The Athenaeum’s brownstone building on South Sixth Street was more than a bit down in the dumps and showed it.
What had started as a bold, exciting idea in 1814 — a membership library where the pooled funds of members served to acquire books for lending — had long lost its sizzle.
Membership was down to less than 200. Membership age was way up. So were deficits.
Moss realized the library needed a focus, and he found it in architecture.
Bruce Laverty, the Athenaeum’s architecture curator, said that until 1973, “the only drawings we had were the 40 architectural drawings used to build this building … and some from a number of competitions.”
Moss changed that. Between 1973 and 1983, the collection grew to 30,000 drawings.
Now, said Laverty, the collection includes about 360,000 architectural drawings and about 300,000 photographs, largely by Philadelphia architects and designers. There are also diaries and letters, business documents, you name it.
It is safe to say the Walter collection alone, with his drawings of his greatest creations — Girard College, the U.S. Capitol dome and expansion, and even his consulting work on Philadelphia City Hall — makes the Athenaeum indispensable for an understanding of 19th-century America’s imperial self-portrait.
The showpieces of the website are the nearly 150,000 images — plans, drawings, photographs — many of them from the Athenaeum’s archives and made possible by the Athenaeum’s enormous Cruse scanner.
Because architectural drawings are often so large, they are difficult to handle, much less digitize. But in 2005, the Athenaeum invested in a large-format scanner capable of producing razor-sharp images up to 4 by 6 feet; it can go even larger if a little digital stitching is incorporated.
The scanner — the only of its kind within a hundred miles — has now been in continuous use for nearly 20 years. And it’s become a revenue source. Other nonprofits and, most recently, artists have employed it to reproduce paintings and drawings.
In art, size matters.
“The PAB site gets over 900,000 hits a year, and gets them from all over the world,” said Conn. “So there are a lot of people in places like Tokyo and Norway and West Chester, Pa., who only know the Athenaeum as a place to go online to look at architecture. There are probably more people out there who know about us than people across the street.”
But architecture isn’t the entirety of the Athenaeum’s digital focus. There are about 7,000 historic maps in its collection — the focus of another website, the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network (philageohistory.org), which allows viewers to zoom in and out of different parts of the city using multiple maps and contemporary map overlays.
About a dozen other institutions have contributed maps, which are scanned on the workhorse Cruse scanner and then uploaded to the website.