Remodeling Newberry Exhibitions

The Newberry Library’s first exhibition opened in 1896. In the 125 years since, we’ve held hundreds more, thanks to the continued generosity of donors across the decades. Exhibitions invite people into the library and help make our massive collection intriguing instead of overwhelming. They also demonstrate how our historic collection can shed light on contemporary issues and themes that touch on the lives of Newberry visitors in 2021.

“I believe that the Newberry collection has a lot to offer us in our present moment,” says the Newberry’s Director of Exhibitions Paul Durica. “When I sit down with exhibition curators, I try to get us all to think about the story first. What story are we trying to tell? Can we see the humanity nested within these collection items? What does that story help us understand about today’s world?”

Durica became the library’s Director of Exhibitions in January 2020. With Durica at the helm, the Newberry is looking forward to a revitalized program and a more cohesive vision for exhibitions. Creating a positive visitor experience is at the center of Durica’s ambitions for Newberry exhibitions.

“I try as much as possible to put myself in the place of the visitor,” he says. “I don’t want an exhibition to be overwhelming. I want it to be engaging. I’m interested in how we can capture those moments when the past becomes present, similar to what scholars experience when they find something new in the reading rooms. I want our exhibitions to bring that feeling of discovery and connection to visitors.”

The great thing about the Newberry, he adds, is that if visitors want to explore further, they can register for a reader’s card and head upstairs to examine the collection firsthand. “I don’t know a lot of other institutions like that. It makes us unique.”

For Durica, exhibitions themselves can offer a valuable opportunity to generate new knowledge about and from the collection. “One of the Newberry’s current exhibitions, Sweet Bitter Love, is a great example. It features artist Jeffrey Gibson taking something from the collection, reacting to it, and making something new,” he says.

Sweet Bitter Love: An Initiative of Toward Common Cause presents Gibson’s reflections on representations of Indigenous people in cultural institutions. Responding to a series of 19th-century portraits by E. A. Burbank in the Newberry’s collection, Gibson (a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent) refutes the stereotypical imagery that, for centuries, has helped create and reinforce pernicious myths about Indigenous people.

The collaborative exhibition is just the first of what Durica hopes will be many more. “I’ve been working to bring in co-curated exhibitions, not just with artists like Gibson, but also with scholars, community activists, youth organizers, and other cultural organizations,” he says.

Durica hopes to make Newberry exhibitions even more accessible. This work includes continuing to offer exhibition materials and tours in languages other than English and increasing support for people with visual and hearing impairments. “The Newberry is committed to offering exhibitions that are free and open to the public, and I believe that accessibility is key to that,” he explains.

The support of donors like you is vital to the work that Durica and others are doing across the library. Be sure to visit Sweet Bitter Love: An Initiative of Toward Common Cause before it closes on September 18, and don’t miss the upcoming exhibition Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time, running September 10 through December 30, 2021.

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Summer 2021. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.