A Thoreau-ly Likable Exhibition

A Thoreau-ly Likable Exhibition

“I hate museums, there is nothing so weighs upon my spirits,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal.

Of course, I’ve taken the passage out of context for dramatic effect. Thoreau, the naturalist and keen observer of the world around him, was specifically referring to natural history museums, “the catacombs of nature,” as he called them. For him, experiencing nature on his daily walks—seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing and tasting it—was the essence of his life in Concord, Massachusetts.

If Thoreau were alive today—he died in 1862, age 44—he would not, I want to think, dismiss The Morgan Library & Museum as a tomb, even though it holds (and preserves) in its permanent collection 40 volumes of his journals. No, he might even take pleasure in the splendid exhibition, “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” mounted by the Morgan, in partnership with the Concord Museum, in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth.

To return to the opening sentence about hating museums, I admit: The idea of an exhibition devoted to books—especially books filled top to bottom of the page with a 19th-century New Englander’s observations recorded in a crabbed hand—does not immediately set the heart racing. Dry, boring, pedantic are three adjectives that come to mind, but happily do not apply. The exhibition does Thoreau proud.

That it is so engaging and entertaining has a lot to do with the spirited, intellectually alive, enthusiastic man at its center. What’s not to like about a fellow who writes, “My desire is to know what I have lived, that I may know how to live henceforth.” Nothing, no matter how small or insignificant, escapes his attention. To present Thoreau as a fully rounded man, the show brilliantly surrounds words with context: daguerreotypes, letters, a quill pen, a walking stick, maps, prints and, standing center stage, the green wooden desk at which he recorded his reflections.

Like all satisfying exhibitions, “This Ever New Self” is not an end but a beginning. The Morgan shop has volumes of Thoreau‘s writings with which to continue the journey. “The Portable Thoreau” is on my desk as I write.

“This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” on view thru Sept. 10, 2017, at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., 212.685.0008, themorgan.org

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