The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens near Pasadena may be best known for their beautiful gardens, but what is kept in storage around the grounds are equally precious not just for Angelenos, but to researchers and history buffs around the world. In celebration of its centennial, the Huntington has placed a few pieces of their impressive collection on display and staged two exhibitions.
"Nineteen Nineteen" displays more than 250 objects from the Huntington's library and art collections that were either acquired, created or displayed in the year 1919 when founders Henry and Arabella Huntington signed the trust document that would transform their San Marino property into a public institution. The second exhibition, "What Now: Collecting for the Library in the 21st Century," is a two-part exhibition that exhibits the Huntington's recent acquisitions for the first time in the institution's history. "The Huntington's library collections are about documenting the human experience," says chief curator Claudia Funke, "Despite these objects coming from different places and times, they speak to one another and to us today."
History may have happened yesterday, but a look at these objects shows that it still holds power even today. Funke adds, these objects help humanity gain a "better understanding of the present from the past." Here are some artifacts from bygone years that continue to resonate even in an age of artificial intelligence, unmanned navigation and interplanetary travel.
An army man’s letter to his wife during the U.S. invasion of Mexico
When the U.S. annexed Texas (seeing it as part of America's Manifest Destiny to spread democracy), it set off a war between U.S. and Mexico. The end of the Mexican-American War would eventually see Texas in American hands and Rio Grande as the official border between Texas and Mexico, but not without heavy losses of life and dramatic displays of violence, which many American soldiers opposed to. Edmund Kirby's letter to his wife, Eliza Brown Kirby, written on Mexican government letterhead, shows just how violent the situation was.
“Our coming was preceded by victories, glorious to our arms & country — great battles abounding in that attribute so dear to the people of the United States — blood — blood — blood. Enough has been shed to excite the most enthusiastic joy throughout our dear country — Enough to cause tears to flow sufficient to float a ship of war,” writes Kirby.
Kirby's letter reminds us of the ongoing tensions when it comes to borders and territory, but also how substantial the consequences are for any kind of warfare.
A letter between gay lovers written before the Stonewall uprising
Openly gay within their circle of friends even before the Stonewall uprising in 1969, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy raised many eyebrows, their 30-year age gap notwithstanding. This charming series of photo booth pictures and a letter written by Isherwood when Bachardy was studying abroad show the universality of love no matter what the gender.
An illustration celebrating the passing of the 19th Amendment
Men and women weren't on equal footing when this country was founded. It took almost a century of work for women even to win the right to vote. The passing of the 19th Amendment represented a momentous victory when women were given the same rights and responsibilities to citizenship, including to vote, so this drawing of "Justice" and "American Womanhood" embracing captures the celebratory mood of the time.
Today, gender equality continues to be a work in progress. Pay gaps exist and might not close until 2059; women continue to be underrepresented in government; fathers still need to pick up more of the slack after the birth of their children, but more vocal activists and increasing research is helping shine the light on the issues, paving the way for continued change to happen.
A book on African American trailblazers from the early 1900s
African Americans were an essential part of the country’s fighting force, despite the level of discrimination they faced. Oakland journalist Delilah Beasley spent eight years researching African American pioneers based in California. Despite her efforts, black veterans who had risked their lives fighting in World War I still found themselves treated as second-class citizens. Today, African Americans outnumber whites in prisons (though that gap is shrinking); about one in 1,000 black men could expect to die at the hands of police; black infants are twice as likely to die before their first birthdays compared to their white counterparts. Clearly, there’s more to be done to level the field.
Click left and right to see the objects. Click on a specific photo to enlarge.
Angry messages for Gloria Molina on Proposition 187
In Proposition 187’s declaration of intent, it specifically states that its purpose was to “to prevent illegal aliens in the United States from receiving benefits or public services in the State of California.” It would have denied education, health and social services for those not in the country legally. It would have also turned public servants into de facto informers, requiring them to report anyone they reasonably suspected of being undocumented to the authorities.
In the face of such legislation, Gloria Molina, the first Latina elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, worked to oppose the ballot initiative. While she was protecting a vulnerable population, it wasn’t always a popular move for her other constituents.
Today, the question of immigration and undocumented migrants continues to pull the country apart. The best course of action is still being debated.
Memoirs of a single working Mexican woman in post-War California
Mexico has long been part of the United State's labor force, and life hasn't been easy then or now. No artifact shows this better than the journal of Dolores V. Trejo, a single woman who moved to the United States in 1935 and returned to Mexico decades later. Her diary illuminates her immigrant experience but also goes down to the details such as her insurance expenses and homeownership over the years.
A verdant (and realized) rendering for Pershing Square
Pershing Square is the city’s oldest park, but it could also hold the distinction of being the most hated in the city. It wasn't always that way, a 1910 rendering, suggested by architects John Parkinson and George Edwin Bergstrom, show a verdant Pershing Square surrounded by greenery with diagonal lanes that lead to a circular plaza in the center. This plan, which was realized, helped make Pershing Square a teeming gathering space — until a subterranean parking garage was added. Its ramps cut off access to the city streets and pedestrians, the lifeblood of any park. A subsequent post-Modernist renovation in the '90s added imposing sculptures and even more hard edges to the already beleaguered park, but there is still hope. In 2016, Agence Ter won a competition to redesign the park. Their proposal would open the park to its residents by placing the park at the same level as the city, adding trees and lawns and even a large canopy that would offer shade all day long. It remains to be seen if that design could finally give Pershing Square back to its people.
Top Image: J. C. Milligan, Crowds at Bullock’s Department Store, Broadway, Los Angeles, August 1919 | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens