A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now

Magna Carta
Magna Carta

A document can make a big difference, as the Birthers are currently proving in all the wrong ways. The Magna Carta -- a document whose Madonna-level status requires you to drop the "the" and refer to it simply as "Magna Carta" -- reframed the relationship between royalty and us regular bums so completely that it's still, 796 years later, the root of our legal family tree.

For this year's BritWeek, LACMA has been hosting a copy of Magna Carta from the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, dating from 1217. Since Magna Carta is only here for two more days, here's a roundup of some of L.A.'s most remarkable, and permanently resident, historical documents.

9. Magna Carta @ The Huntington Library

See what I did there? The Bodleian Library can eat one, because L.A. has its own damn Magna Carta. And it's weirder than theirs, too. When we originally called the Huntington to see what they could come with to dazzle the dusty proclamations socks off of us, they were all, we have "a unique surviving copy of a now lost and hitherto unknown preliminary draft of Magna Carta." We weren't sure what that meant, but it sounded COOL.

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We later talked to English historical manuscripts curator Mary Robertson, and the deal, she says, is that "what we have is a late 13th century English manuscript statute book that begins with a copy of the text of Magna Carta called 'Provisiones de Ronnemede,' which does not exactly match the standard text of Magna Carta as accepted by King John in June 1215." To put that another way, she says, "The copy the scribe used in our manuscript was probably the penultimate draft before the final version."

A. Thank you, Mary Robertson, for using penultimate. It is one of our favorite words. B. The text in our Magna Carta is OLDER than theirs. Schooled. 3. "Provisiones de Ronnemede" is about a billion times more Renaissance Faire-y than "Magna Carta" -- we'll take it.

8. Gutenberg Bible @ The Huntington Library

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

You thought The Huntington was gonna back down after that? Nuh-uh. What we have here (and by here I mean on display in a lovely garden setting in San Marino) is the one of the first things to be hot off the press, ever. The Huntington's efficient caption says it all: "The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg was named the most important achievement of the last millennium. It revolutionized the spread of information, ideas, literacy, and democracy." And Gutenberg's Bible was the first major work to go bestseller.

If that doesn't impress you, try this on: One. Of. Three. Vellum. Copies. In. The. US. (Vellum is fancy paper, guys.)

7. The Düsseldorf Catalogue @ The Getty Research Institute

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of Getty Research Institute

In 1714, Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz put his collection of nearly 400 works of art on display, except he didn't do it in his home, he built a public building for it, one of the first nonresidential galleries -- important thing one. Then Prince-elector Carl Theodor von der Pfalz, Johann's nephew and successor in the brilliant-name business, did another new thing: in the 1760's and '70s, he rearranged the collection, grouping paintings by style and school, instead of willy-nilly by subject or just what looked good.

Once Carl Theodor was on a roll, he kept going: his curator hung the paintings with space in between them (instead of just frame-to-frame, like every other Prince's big art collection), creating the idea that each was a discrete work of art, and inviting comparison between works. Then these fun-loving guys published a catalog of the collection, which was the first of its kind to contain analysis of each painting, i.e. instructions for the public on how to appreciate the art. If this all sounds a lot like a modern museum to you, that's the point. These guys basically invented that.

6. Horn's Overland Guide to California @ The Autry National Center Library

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy Autry Library

If you played Oregon Trail as a kid, the full title of this guidebook + fold out map is going to be familiar terrain: Horn's overland guide, from the U.S. Indian sub-agency, Council Bluffs, on the Missouri River, to the city of Sacramento, in California containing a table of distances, and showing all the rivers, creeks, lakes, springs, mountains, hills, camping-places, and other prominent objects; with remarks on the country, roads, timbers, grasses, curiosities, etc. -- with a complete and accurate map.

Nineteenth-century American pioneers: they're just like us! They bought hundreds of different guidebooks to help them consider and plan their move West. Hosea B. Horn's book detailed need-to-knows from where to find wood for campfires to which forts were happy to trade with travelers. Fair warning: this 1852 edition traces essentially the same route as was taken by the Donner Party in 1846.

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