This past weekend, the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Rosenbach Museum and Library hosted an event for the Beatrix Potter Society. “Preserving Beatrix Potter’s Legacy: Collectors and Collections” focused on both private and institutional collections of Potter’s work. Attendees were able to see many beautiful pieces from the Free Library’s extensive collections in four (yes, four!) exhibits currently on display at Parkway Central. The events kicked off on Friday with “Reading Beatrix Potter” events at various Free Library locations, at which Beatrix Potter Society members read stories and lead children in crafts. Here at Parkway Central we heard The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, read by two expert storytellers. That evening attendees were welcomed by Free Library President Siobhan Reardon at a reception in the Rare Book Department, where the crudité platter was arranged in flowerpots to recall Mr. McGregor’s garden. On Saturday, members met at the Free Library to hear Head of the Art Department Karen Lightner speak about the origins of the Free Library’s collections. Other speakers tantalized us with glimpses of an upcoming display of Potter’s illustrated letters, to be held at the Morgan Library and Museum in November 2012, and intrigued us with the pirated editions of Potter held in the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton.
On both Saturday and Sunday members shared their private collections with the group, allowing us to see treasures by Beatrix Potter that are otherwise out of sight, including two adorable watercolors of a “lady mouse” and a “gentleman mouse” from the Tailor of Gloucester that Potter had done in 1927 as a fundraiser to save a strip of property near Windermere Ferry. On Sunday morning the group convened at the Rosenbach, where President Derick Dreher revealed the connections between Maurice Sendak and Beatrix Potter. Sendak is a huge fan of Potter who collects her works and memorabilia and who has been demonstrably influenced by her art. This might seem strange to people who think of Sendak as the King of the Wild Rumpus, but to him her tales capture an overwhelming sense of life, which is the point of all art.
Throughout the weekend, speakers reflected on collecting not just as a private enthusiasm, but also as a method of shaping ways to see the world. Undergraduates exposed to rare books as objects of commerce and desire may grow up to sit on the boards of libraries and effectively advocate for special collections. Scholars collecting in a particular area can amass collections that will shape how history is written. And institutions that house these collections can introduce delightful, timeless works of art to new generations. In a public library with many special collections, the importance of collecting in order to make available unique and rare materials to the public never seemed clearer than it did this weekend.
- Adrienne Pruitt