COLLECTING FOR THE BOSTON ATHENAEUM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
by James Foritano
The Boston Athenaeum’s current exhibit explores the question of what constitutes rarity, with its own brand of exuberance that is at once spirited and discriminating. And what a probing and wide exploration it is. One example, enthroned behind glass (but just barely), we owe to the Countess of Aylesford’s genius for adorning her own private copy of Thomas Pattinson Yeats’ 1773 edition of “Institutions of Entomology” with “delicate, life-size watercolors of each insect.” A description, however accurate, that doesn’t do justice to the vitality of the Countess’ inspired graffiti.
No respecter of text, her beetle inscribes its path right across the scientific category that is supposed to pin such waywardness firmly in place. Fast forward a few steps away, through a century and a half of technological evolution, and enthroned on its own pinnacle we find Rudyard Kipling’s “Le Livre de la Jungle” (Paris, Éditions Grasset, 1936), bound with “a plastic resin similar to Bakelite.” Yikes! All due honor and gratitude to that early 20th century wonder material that, thanks to Leo Baekeland’s inventive chemistry, happened along just in time to house our telephones and radios, to ornament our kitchenware and jewelry. But, plastic?
Judge for yourself whether or not the Athenaeum has stepped out of bounds, or at least out of your bounds, in so elevating the common- place to rare status. Or wait another 100 years when maybe this question will settle itself, one way or another, in perpetuity. Or, maybe not.