The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond: Selections from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection opened on October 4, 2016 and closed on February 5, 2017. This exhibition featured about 100 objects from Susan Tane’s gorgeous collection, with a few additional objects from two other collectors and two libraries. After a period of intensive research–looking at new Poe scholarship, the Tane collection, and the narratives about Poe that we wanted to present–we (see below) decided to arrange the materials in three main sections. “Hometowns” highlights Poe’s relationships to Baltimore, Boston, Richmond, New York, and Philadelphia, bypassing the conflicts about which city was most important to Poe (although of course we front-loaded Baltimore!) in order to offer some reasons for Poe’s peripatetic career. “Master of Variety” surveys the generic breadth and startling innovation of Poe’s work–touching on his popular horror tales, of course, but also his science writing and science fiction, his analytic detective fiction and the stories that led up to it, his poetry, his essays, and the bread-and-butter reviews and editorial work. “Life After Death” begins with the infamous obituary that stained Poe’s reputation for so many decades (along with a lock of his hair and a fragment of his coffin!), then identifies some of the books that facilitated Poe’s posthumous revival, and ends with an array of terrific examples of Poe’s lasting impression on popular culture.
Assembling #EnigmaticEdgar was a complex, arduous, and deeply satisfying process. Susan Tane’s collection is so rich–with letters and manuscripts and realia; first printings in magazines, gift books, anthologies, and paper-bound volumes; photographs and original art; beautiful illustrated editions and sheet music–that the first challenge was selection. A previous exhibition of the Tane Collection at the Grolier Club featured over 200 objects; how were we going to cut that number in half, while telling the stories we wanted to tell and showing off the real gems? In addition to the usual intricacies of case arrangement and display within the limitations of our historic nineteenth-century space, programming, and publication, there were many moving parts specific to this project that had to do with logistics and practical matters: loans and transportation, upgrading our alarm systems and security protocols, signage and communication for an exhibition that would attract large numbers of visitors.
And then there was the fact that we were publishing a book in tandem with the exhibition, Edgar Allan Poe in 20 Objects from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection, co-edited by me and the generous and astute Richard Kopley, with, yes, twenty short essays about twenty objects.
Did I mention the complementary exhibition of facsimiles from the Tane Collection, Poe in Print, at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore? Two versions of a video of “The Raven” (abridged and complete)? A mini film series, built around the premiere of Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, a beautiful new documentary directed by Eric Stange? Organizing a Poe panel for the Making of the Humanities 2016 conference and another one, featuring the Curatorial Fellows, for our Special Collections Research Center? My own presentation on Poe for the Society for Textual Scholarship conference? Three receptions, an alumni presentation, and a dozen or so tours? An official digital exhibition that launched on Poe’s birthday in 2017? A class about Poe that I taught through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute? And a class about Poe’s “afterlives” that I taught through the Hopkins’ Museum & Society program, which produced a blog and a student-generated digital exhibition? Complex, arduous, deeply satisfying. And wow, now that I am reviewing it all… that was a lot.
“We” equals, as usual, a dynamic and dedicated team. Susan Tane and her assistant Gabriel Mckee, our amazing allies who made it all happen. Paul Espinosa, Curator of the George Peabody Library, who did a million things behind the scenes. Dave Plunkert of Spur Design, responsible for the enchanting gallery graphics, and Lisa Pupa of L Pupa Design, who designed the lovely book. The unflappable Mind in Motion video team, endlessly clever with their sound design, and all our patient Raven readers. My wonderful colleagues in Conservation, who handled many logistics with aplomb, but also made installation and signage look splendid. My wonderful colleagues in External Relations, who planned flawless parties and master-minded promotion. And the three fabulous Denis Family Curatorial Fellows who co-curated the exhibition, Elizabeth Brogden (PhD 2016, English), Abigail RayAlexander (PhD 2016, French), and Jena Whitaker (PhD candidate, French), and who I am going to miss very, very much.
Lost and Found in the Funhouse: The John Barth Collection opened on October 12, 2015–the product of about two years of work, with two recent graduates of the Writing Seminars M.F.A. program who served as curatorial fellows, Matt Morton and Nate McNamara. We identified and arranged highlights from JHU’s recently acquired John Barth Collection not so much to make a particular argument but to illuminate the intricate personal and material networks that comprise a writing career… and, for the viewer, to create an experience of wayfinding and lostgetting, which was as close as we could come to reproducing the feeling of reading a Barth text.
John and Shelly Barth attended, and three of Barth’s former students from Hopkins delivered brief “remarks”: Jean McGarry, Michael Martone, and ZZ Packer. Very cool.
The Barth scholar Charles Harris and I co-edited a related Festschrift, published by Dalkey Archive Press, which has also reissued all of Barth’s major works.
It was especially fun to collaborate with graphic designer and artist Dave Plunkert; the exhibition benefited so much from his amazing illustrations and design ideas. Not only did his images grace our banner and panels, but he managed to build a funhouse mirror into the bottom half of our main gallery banner, so that exhibition visitors got a surprise at the end (if they correctly followed the pathway clues we built into the exhibition brochure.) Dave designed two different funhouse fonts to reinforce this distortion effect. In silver, to mimic the mirror, one of the fonts was used especially effectively in the Barth quotes on the walls, which literally ran onto and off our text panels. His portrait of Barth perfectly captures that funhouse feeling–just on the border between “entertaining” and “spooky.”
In 2013, I curated an exhibition about the American writer Stephen Crane, with curatorial fellows Jennie Hann and Doug Tye, Ph.D. candidates in the English Department. Criminy, did I come to love Crane. Some of his stories are masterful proto-Scott Fitzgerald gems… others are sloppy and quite clearly intended to please audiences rather than carry out some grand artistic design. (Commercial aspirations are also rather Fitzgeraldian, of course.) Rather than pretend the sloppy work did not exist, or attempt to explain it away, Jennie, Doug, and I decided to examine Crane’s career as a “professional” writer in an era when this designation did not yet ensure any kind of steady income (not that it does now). Hence the title, For Love or Money: Art, Commerce & Stephen Crane. Works from the Wertheim-Frary Collection. We also put together a catalog listing Wertheim-Frary collection highlights, with essays on Crane’s money troubles and commercial strategies.
The trickiest part of this plan was representing Crane’s newspaper journalism–central to whatever income he was able to scrape together. The Wertheim-Frary collection is extremely rich in books and periodicals, with a nice helping of letters, but does not contain any original newspapers–mostly because those newspapers do not exist in print form anymore. They have long since disappeared as material objects, due to their “worthless” status and highly acidic paper; those that have survived are quite fragile. Borrowing would have been difficult. The digital surrogates that exist were made from microfilm copies and are not very legible at large scale. So, I had some super high-dpi scans made from scrapbooks in the Crane collection at Columbia University. The wonderful Vicki Kaak painstakingly “cut out” and “blew up” the articles to assemble a large case of reader-friendly panels… a little bit like walking into the scrapbooks from which the clippings came. Lisa Pupa came up with the perfect design: a hybrid heart-dollar sign.
Biggest surprise was the difficulty of finding the “original” (on microfilm) of the newspaper story on which “The Open Boat” is based. In the end, we made a facsimile.
Loveliest surprise was discovering a “reminiscence” about Walt Whitman in the New-York Tribune in 1892, which I suspect was written by Crane or at least greatly improved by him.
I curated my first large-scale exhibition in 2009, as a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow. The result was A View of the Parade: H. L. Mencken and American Magazines. In preparation, I spent many, many months turning the pages of the many, many magazines in George H. Thompson’s enormous Mencken collection.
Researching my dissertation, I did quite a bit of archival time. Plus, I had earned a certificate in Textual Studies from the University of Washington–a program that emphasizes textual evolution and history of the book. In other words, I thought I knew from original sources. But picking out a manuscript or a letter or an edition here and there from a well-ordered finding aid is absolutely nothing like wading through several dozen boxes chockablock full of magazines arranged haphazardly by title. It was overwhelming… and exhilarating. Extracting a narrative directly from those magazines, rather than following a trail of bread crumbs already laid down by other scholars, was difficult and terrifying and very exciting.
And that is how I got hooked on exhibitions. (I also came to be profoundly grateful to obsessive collectors and meticulous archivists.)
A View of the Parade focused on Mencken’s long career as a magazine contributor, editor, and subject. I learned so much about periodicals, railroads, advertising, color printing technology, and of course, H. L. Mencken.