Ambitious Thoreau show brings two museums together
CONCORD — Henry David Thoreau did not mince words. A dedication to plain speaking helped make the author of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience ” one of America’s greatest writers.
When discussing “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” which runs at the Concord Museum through Jan. 21, the museum’s executive director, Margaret R. Burke, doesn’t mince words either. “It is, honestly, the most important exhibition we’ve done in the history of the museum,” Burke said in an interview last month.
The show pays tribute to Concord’s most famous son (Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston) on the occasion of his bicentennial.
That importance is twofold. “This Ever New Self” is “the largest exhibition on the subject of Henry David Thoreau that’s ever been mounted,” said David F. Wood, the museum’s curator, in an interview last month. “This is the big one.”
That bigness is attributable to the other reason for the show’s importance. “This Ever New Self” is a collaboration between the two institutions with the largest Thoreau holdings, the Concord Museum and New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, where the show ran last summer. Wood and Morgan curator Christine Nelson jointly organized the exhibition.
The Morgan’s Thoreau holdings include manuscripts, published books, letters, field notes, and 40 of the 47 notebooks he kept his journal in. The show includes more than 20 of them. The Concord Museum’s Henry David Thoreau Collection comprises more than 250 items. Among them are Thoreau’s desk, his walking stick, a tap for drawing sap from birch trees, and the lock and key from the cell where he spent his famous night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes in a protest against slavery. They are among the upward of 100 artifacts in “This Ever New Self.”
“The exhibition took shape as a series of object and journal pairings,” Nelson said in an e-mail. For example, the lock and key are displayed alongside a journal entry containing the words “Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of prejudice?”
“It was only by bringing together the Morgan’s and the Concord Museum’s collections that we were able to create these powerful juxtapositions,” Nelson said.
The collaboration made sense in terms of Thoreau, but not necessarily institutionally. Concord, which is nearing the end of a $13 million renovation and expansion campaign, has an annual budget of approximately $2.2 million. The Morgan, with an international reputation, has a budget nearly ten times that.
Each institution separately began thinking about a show for the bicentennial in early 2011. Two years later, Nelson served as loan courier for four items from the Morgan that Wood had requested for a Concord exhibition, “Early Spring: Henry Thoreau and Climate Change.”
“David and I were standing right next to Thoreau’s green desk, “Nelson recalled in her e-mail. “I looked at him and said, “What do you think?” And he said, “Let’s do it.” I put Thoreau’s journal on the desk and opened it. It was likely the first time since about 1860, when Thoreau was going over his earlier writings, that the journal had been placed upon that desk. That day David and I resolved to find a way to mark the bicentenary by bringing together the Morgan journals and the Concord artifacts.”
Two years of institutional back-and-forth ensued. “We all thought this is either a home run or we won’t be doing anything at all with them,” Burke said.
It was agreed that the Morgan would get the show first. This allowed Concord to run another Thoreau bicentennial show, “Walden: Four Views/Abelardo Morell,” featuring images by the noted photographer. In a nice twist, Burke knew Morell, a Bowdoin College graduate, from her time as a curator at the school’s art museum.
A key to the collaboration was Wood and Nelson proving to be kindred spirits as regards Thoreau and the journal. They are among the speakers at a daylong symposium on the show, to be held at the Fenn School, in Concord, on Oct. 28.
Wood first read portions of the journal when he was 20, committing passages to memory. “They’re still there,” he said. “You want the real Thoreau? Read the journal. That’s where he is.”
Nelson said that it was her interest in journal keeping, not devotion to Thoreau, that first drew her to the project. Still, “I’ve been thinking about Thoreau’s journal for over 25 years,” she wrote. That process began “my first day of work at the Morgan, when I first saw his notebooks all lined up inside an old pine box.”
Asked if the show was a stretch for Concord, Wood grinned. “We never should have dared,” he laughed. “We should have been terrified. But the Morgan was so nice to work with. It all worked out wonderfully well.”
“This Ever New Self” isn’t the only bicentennial show in the vicinity of Walden Pond. “‘Concord, which is my Rome’: Henry Thoreau and His Home Town” runs through Oct. 30 at the Concord Free Public Library. Focusing on the writer’s relationship to Concord, it features manuscript materials, documents, letters, photographs, maps, surveys, engravings, record and account books, all from the library’s holdings.
THIS EVER NEW SELF: THOREAU AND HIS JOURNAL
At Concord Museum, 200 Lexington Road, through Jan. 21. 978-369-9763, www.concordmuseum.org 978-369-9763