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A Few of Our Favorite Things

With the recent retirement of Mister Rogers, we have lost not only one of the great artistic innovators in the medium of television, but also one of its most directly engaged aesthetic radicals. Rogers has probably done more to dismantle traditional aesthetic hegemonies -- empowering contemporary Americans to make up their own minds about “specialness” -- than the efforts of all the artists in the 20th century combined. In this age of digital reproduction, fears have again risen about the obsolescence of older technologies and the humans who love them; we dread the coming onslaught of indistinguishable clones, who will eradicate specialness forever. Which is what makes “The World From Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles,” the new exhibit that opened Wednesday at the UCLA Hammer Museum, so timely and, well, so special.

Drawing on the “special collections” of more than 30 Los Angeles--area libraries, “The World From Here” was assembled by a curatorial team headed by Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer and Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, and Bruce Whiteman of UCLA‘s Clark Library, and rounded out by the Getty’s Wim de Wit, independent curator Norika Gamblin, half a dozen consultants and, of course, the special librarians themselves. Unsurprisingly, the list of participating institutions is dominated by the Getty, the Huntington and the Clark -- three idiosyncratic collections founded by strange rich men with specific cultural axes to grind, but whose libraries took on more comprehensive lives of their own over time. “The World From Here” mimics this comprehensiveness, usually a fault in committee-curated exhibitions. But for every questionably anemic inclusion in pursuit of encyclopedic scope, there‘s an equally peculiar artifact that demands a double take -- the original drawings by Sir Francis Richard Burton for his 1861 book on the Mormons, The City of the Saints, from the Autry Museum of Western Heritage Research Center, for example. Or the dimpled transcription of Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, from the Braille Institute. Or the case of glass eyeballs from the 1860s, courtesy of the Louise Darling Biomedical Library at UCLA.

The exhibition is split into eight thematic sections, loosely orchestrating the more than 350 objects into more or less logical groupings. These are, roughly: Los Angeles itself, the history of printing, artists‘ books, science, exploration, architecture, daily life and great books. These categories seem somewhat arbitrary and certainly permeable -- John James Audubon’s enormous The Birds of America, for example, is in the Visualizing Nature subsection of the Word and Image section, as opposed to the Natural History subsection of the Earth and Universe division, where it very clearly would have been classified if the curators had been using the criteria of the Library of Congress.

Be that as it may, the fetishistic taxonomy of the library people fades quickly enough into the background as one moves through the show. There are the expected archetypal entries -- a Shakespeare first folio and a first edition of Moby-Dick. Some works defy categories, such as the Muku Joko Kyo Jishin‘in Darani, an eighth-century miniature wooden pagoda with a tiny scroll that is the oldest printed text in existence. But the show finally resolves into a bipolar balance between historically significant publications, such as the Reglamento Provicional (1834), the first book printed in California, or the 1953 Watson-Crick pamphlet announcing the discovery of DNA -- and more exciting curiosities, such as the 1821 children’s board game The Royal Game of the Dolphin, or the German-Japanese-English hybrid Obstetrical Pocket-Phantom, an 1895 articulated paper doll to aid students in visualizing various in utero fetal positions.

The visual pleasures of “The World From Here” are abundant, from the intricate draftsmanship of ancient maps and architectural plans to the ravishing elegance of a golden Buddhist scroll or hand-painted alchemical manuscripts, from pop-up books of the Moscow subway system to the illuminated poetry of William Blake, who invented an innovative relief-printing technique to realize his visions. The exhibit includes work by many big-name artists -- Durer, Muybridge, Picasso, Kandinsky, Ernst, Ansel Adams, Jasper Johns, etc. -- but much of the most visually compelling material comes from relatively anonymous illustrators, particularly in the Earth and Universe section‘s wealth of medical and natural-history texts.

Robert Hooke’s Micrographia is opened to a stunning image of a flea, drawn from observation using the newly invented microscope. Pierre Joseph Redoute‘s a illustrations of lilies are only one of a score of botanical volumes from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden Library that highlight the patience and meticulous powers of observation that once defined art making. The other lesser-known institution represented here that delivers far beyond expectation is the Louise Darling Biomedical Library, which contributes, in addition to the aforementioned eyeballs and obstetric pocket-phantom, an 18th-century Japanese scroll detailing the dissection of an executed criminal, an original set of Rorschach ink blots, a beautifully worn medieval Persian ophthalmology manual, and William Harvey’s 1628 De Motu Cordis, which first described the circulation of blood and launched the empirical scientific method.

The Harvey book isn‘t strictly as beautiful as several of the other anatomy texts included, but stands out as a relic in the history of human imagination. A good number of the works here function on the iconic level -- marking the entry into the world of a particularly momentous idea or story. Different people will be drawn to stand in the presence of literary first editions of Chaucer, Milton, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Austen, Melville, Rimbaud, Joyce, Eliot and Burroughs; of original revolutionary scientific treatises by Copernicus, Galileo or Newton; significant editions of the Koran, the New Testament, the Talmud and the Book of Mormon; or original documents such as the typescript of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, the actual diaries of Anais Nin, the flight log of Amelia Earhart‘s first transatlantic journey, or the manuscript of Tho-reau’s Walden. In an era in which any text can be copied and disseminated in virtually infinite identical numbers instantaneously, the remarkableness of these manuscripts as artifacts is not, as one might expect, undermined, but instead reinforced. For many of the works, the reasons are obvious -- the exquisite, as-yet irreproducible craftsmanship of the handmade objects, for example. But the individual and collective cultural naming of something as “special” is a more slippery, deeper and more enduring proposition, and arguably the central act of art making.

While there are more than enough pictorial materials and venerable objects to keep the eye and mind occupied, the show is frustrating as well. Even more so with books than with pieces of art (with which the public has been conditioned to avoid direct contact), the urge to handle the actual artifact is a constant, nagging ache. Presented in a sealed case and opened to a single page, each book is tantalizingly out of reach. Stripped of their tactile complexities, the works here can only hint at what a bibliophile heaven curating the show must have been. The Hammer has taken pains to ameliorate this unfortunate distancing by providing facsimile editions, interactive multimedia stations, an extensive Web site, even a video of one book‘s pages being flipped through.

But the teasing quality of the exhibit isn’t entirely at odds with the curatorial goals. “Bruce Whiteman had this idea, and it‘s really true,” explains curator Burlingham, “that the general public, and even other librarians, don’t know what libraries here have. L.A.‘s one of the great book-collection cities of the world, and people don’t know that. We made the decision that all the collections represented here had to be accessible to the public -- not private collections or ones that wouldn‘t allow the public to come and request to see things. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We wanted it to be a taste of what people could go out and see.”

At this point in history, when the technology of replication continues to extend beyond our powers of sensory discrimination, it is reassuring to look back at the dawn of mechanical reproduction and recognize the conviction at its center that each artifact and event is a unique and honorable phenomenon, in spite of what our perceptions tell us. Or, to paraphrase Mister Rogers, you make this day special by just being you. There’s only one person in the world exactly like you, and people can like you just the way you are. “The World From Here” is a refreshingly innocent show, more in step with Mister Rogers‘ sincere wonder at the sheer improbability of the everyday world than with the futile hectoring of Marshall McLuhan. The exhibit is predicated on the assumption of a literate, informed, curious public -- in marked contrast to the condescending dumbing down that has been a trademark of much recent museological practice. From this innocence emerges a convincing and contagious enthusiasm for the book as a powerful and central cultural touchstone. Certainly it will never displace computer solitaire and eBay, but there’s definitely a future in it.