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Boston Athenaeum, a remnant of the city’s Brahmin past, looks to engage an increasingly diverse population

Subcontractors Chris Burr (left) and Chris Fendt ran electrical wires behind the Venus de Medici sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Sitting catty-corner from the State House, the landmark Boston Athenaeum can resemble a grand survivor of a bygone era, a remnant of the Brahmin past amid the shiny high-rises and sweeping demographic changes that mark the 21st-century city.

Busts of stolid, studied men cast an inanimate gaze upon members of the private library as they read in absolute silence. Row upon row of books from a 500,000-volume circulating collection — as well as 100,000 rare books, maps, and manuscripts, and 100,000 works of art — offer a vast well of options for research and reflection.

But behind the walls of this 215-year-old institution, something else is afoot, and it’s not limited to the Athenaeum’s renovation and expansion into an adjacent building. The venerable institution is looking to broaden its programming, engage more of the city’s increasingly diverse population, and even be more transparent about its own history.


Following a 16-month construction project that nearly doubled its size, the Athenaeum is reenvisioning “what we display, how we display, and how we use our collections more fully,” said Leah Rosovsky, the director. “It’s been a long time since we’ve thought differently about programming.”

The Athenaeum, rocked several years ago by internal turmoil, is scheduled to reopen Tuesday with an outward-looking face — including 15,000 square feet of additional space, more rooms and nooks for reading and study, a lighter ambience, and a determination to introduce newcomers to a cultural potpourri of speakers, music, lectures, and world-class holdings, its leaders said.

A view on the fifth floor of the silent reading room inside the Boston Athenaeum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“We’ll make clear to the world that everyone is welcome to be a member. The Athenaeum is not a private club,” said Timothy Diggins, its president. “What is the point of having all these wonderful collections if we’re not in a position of figuring out how to share them.”

A new children’s library has been built, programs about female artists and artists of color are planned, and exhibits will use the Athenaeum’s vast trove of material to connect the past and present, officials said.


“The emphasis that has changed is not just preserving things, but making them accessible,” said John Buchtel, curator of rare books and head of special collections.

The Athenaeum’s goals coincide with efforts by many other local cultural institutions — museums, arts groups, and historical sites — to be more inclusive.

Ola Akinwumi, deputy director at nonprofit ArtsBoston, praised those efforts.

“Boston Athenaeum is setting a tone and bridging all types of artistic practices for representatives of diverse groups to experience a renowned institution that wants its mission to be more accessible and more welcoming to communities of color,” Akinwumi said.

The Athenaeum is supported by about 3,000 members whose annual fees for individuals and families with dependents range from $310 to $525. The public can access the first floor for a small fee, buy a day pass, and take a tour. Members have access to the upper four floors, but anyone can make an appointment to view the special collections.

The Athenaeum’s shift occurs in the aftermath of a striking, pre-pandemic turnover. Between 2014 and early 2018, nearly half of its approximately 55 employees departed after new leadership arrived.

Director Leah Rosovsky looked over boxes, some containing artwork that will be set up at the Boston Athenaeum. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Employees, board members, and longtime supporters of the Athenaeum told the Globe in 2018 that new leadership had disregarded the institution’s character and expert staff.


Rosovsky, who became director in May 2020, said she could not speak about what transpired before her arrival. However, both she and Diggins said the Athenaeum is now on solid footing, both in membership and regarding the workplace.

“We’re in a very good place and moving forward in a very good direction,” Diggins said.

For an institution that is a mix of library, museum, and cultural center, the planned changes are yet another milestone in its evolution as one of the country’s oldest independent libraries. Created in 1807, the Athenaeum was designed to offer what its founders described as “the advantages of a public library ... containing the great works of learning and science in all languages.”

From those lofty ambitions, the Athenaeum quickly grew to become a preeminent cultural institution, although it did not find a permanent home until 1849 on Beacon Street. Before then, it had moved from Congress Street, to Tremont Street near present-day Government Center, to a house adjacent to King’s Chapel, and to a mansion on Pearl Street.

The Pearl Street location had been owned by the brother of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a fabulously wealthy Boston Brahmin who had engaged in the slave trade as a young man and became a major benefactor to the Athenaeum.

Statues of George Washington were seen in the fourth-floor bow room.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Amid the renovation, the Athenaeum moved a large portrait of Perkins, which had hung for many years in the grand Long Room, to a smaller space overlooking the Granary Burying Ground. Perkins’s past will be noted here, and hangings and interpretation also will touch on his family’s relationship with a Black domestic servant named Deyaha, a native of Haiti whose obituary appeared in The Liberator, the influential abolitionist newspaper in Boston.


“We felt it was important to tell not only the Perkins’s story, but Deyaha’s story as well,” assistant curator Christina Michelon said.

After its reopening, the Athenaeum’s first musical event will be a Nov. 17 program by “Castle of our Skins,” a Black arts organization from Boston that seeks to foster cultural curiosity and celebrate Black artistry, according to its website.

A new mural by Ekua Holmes of Roxbury, a visual artist and award-winning illustrator of children’s books, will be displayed in the children’s library.

In addition, the Athenaeum recently acquired a rare painting by 19th-century artist Robert S. Duncanson, who was born in upstate New York in 1821 to free Black parents and became a leading American landscape painter in the years before and after the Civil War.

Yvonne Chang, a lighting designer with Available Light Company, set up last minute lighting on two Alexander Hamilton busts sculptured by artists John Dixey and Louisa Castelvecchi at the Boston Athenaeum. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Ann Beha, founder of Ann Beha Architects, now Annum Architects, said her goal for the $17 million renovation and expansion was to honor the Athenaeum’s past while positioning it for the future.

“It’s all about the initial idea and bringing it through to succeeding generations,” Beha said. “We’re ready to make this history more relevant.”

Robert Carroll, senior manager for the project, said the changes also aim to facilitate conversation and interaction among members in a comfortable atmosphere. Large, colorful, inviting chairs adorn a new space called the Living Room, complete with a water-vapor fireplace. More items from the collections will be displayed in cases there.


In much of the renewed Athenaeum, he said, “it’s just not going into a corner and studying an old manuscript.”

Perhaps nowhere is the new symbolism more apparent than in the longtime lobby at 10½ Beacon St. The entry area previously had little penetrating light. Now, behind the Athenaeum’s iconic red doors, a bright room will greet members and visitors, and enlarged windows will allow interaction with the outside.

“That is a metaphor for us,” Rosovsky said with a smile, nodding at the doors. “We are trying to say to people, ‘Come on in.’ ”

The red doors of the Boston Athenaeum remain, but the institution is reopening with a new look inside and a renewed mission.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.