"A Curator’s Wunderkammer"

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David R. Whitesell. A Curator’s Wunderkammer: A Decade of Collecting for the University of Virginia. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 2022. $25.00. reviewed by Marian Toledo Candelaria.

In 2022, David Whitesell culminated his curatorial career at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Library with an exhibition highlighting his acquisitions for UVA and a catalogue. A Curator’s Wunderkammer: A Decade of Collecting for the University of Virginia is no ordinary exhibition, and its exhibition catalogue is equally unique. A Curator’s Wunderkammer can be considered Whitesell’s parting gift to the University of Virginia, one with the goal of celebrating his retirement by reflecting on the materials acquired by UVA under his tenure and exhibiting a selection of sixty-four items acquired by Whitesell that constitute several “curiosities” among the thousands he contributed to UVA’s Special Collections throughout his curatorial career.

Visitors to the exhibition (as well as the catalogue’s readers) are encouraged by the curator to form their own connections between the materials selected and included in the exhibition, exhorting readers to engage with the selected items in their preferred way. In Whitesell’s own words, the exhibition offers “a small selection with comments intended to illuminate UVA’s current collecting policy, the ins and outs of the unpredictable and highly competitive acquisitions process, and how curators add value to the collection, one acquisition at a time” (2). A university library with a collection spanning over 16 million items collected in the span of roughly two hundred years is to have its share of beloved treasures, and it is guaranteed to present considerable curatorial challenges. The brilliance of Whitesell’s exhibition and catalogue lies beyond the creative theme and arrangement of objects but in its participatory curatorial model, where audiences can create new meanings and inferences with the materials selected. A Curator’s Wunderkammer doubles as a much-welcomed manual on curatorship, addressing the multifold aspects of the curatorial profession–acquisitions, collection development, budget management and allocation, subject expertise, design acumen–for which there is little formal training beyond years of professional experience.

Written in a vibrant and accessible first-person prose, the pages of A Curator’s Wunderkammer seamlessly merge anecdotes on the acquisitions of materials for UVA’s Special Collections, insights into Whitesell’s curatorial processes and expertise, reflections on how UVA’s collections have expanded during his tenure, and advice and guidance on how to overcome the various challenges that come when working in the field. Whitesell’s item selection might be influenced by a desire to create a “wunderkammer,” but each object description is clearly shaped to demonstrate the impact strong, positive, and reciprocal networks have on the work a curator does.

Whitesell describes the exhibition as being “more a Wunderkammer than a coherent whole” (3); the exhibition and the catalogue are arranged into five distinct sections: Jefferson, Virginia & American History (20 items); English Literature (5 items); American Literature (six items); Printing, Publishing & Book Arts (18 items); and Omnium-Gatherum (9 items). The reader will not be surprised to see the most substantial catalogue sections contain items on Thomas Jefferson, Virginia, and printing/book arts in general, since these are areas of strength at the University of Virginia. What is surprising, though, is the candid narratives describing the items, and in particular how they were acquired and how each item strengthens UVA’s special collections. In the first section, Whitesell includes four items associated with Jefferson but explains that his policy is to be highly selective of the materials he acquires, ensuring they represent either unpublished or UVA-related items. Item 3 (“Draft rules for the Virginia House of Burgesses”) represents the earliest extant political manuscript Jefferson wrote in 1769 at the age of 26; at the time, the manuscript was incomplete when acquired in 1988, and it was only through serendipity and strong relations with antiquarian sellers that Whitesell acquired the second half of the leaf in 2012 (10). Another acquisition, a diary by Mary Gray Caldwell (Item 18), exemplifies the benefits of having positive relationships with sellers. A Civil War-era diary written by a Fredericksburg, VA resident, Caldwell’s diary was acquired from William Reese Company, whose staff immediately contacted Whitesell as they knew it would be within UVA’s collecting interests. So, as Whitesell explains, “I work hard to cultivate and maintain good relations with dealers [...] By now I have earned ‘first refusal’ status, sometimes even standing 10-–20% discounts, with many leading booksellers” (34).

Whitesell also explains the type of items that UVA curators steer away from: “materials requiring extensive (and expensive) conservation treatment [...]” (52). An example of an exception is item 29, a copy of Michael Wigglesworth’s Meat out of the eater (Boston, 1689), one of two extant copies of this poetry collection that was previously unrecorded before its acquisition. The rarity of this book was such that it was acquired despite its condition, and thanks to the work of UVA’s conservation staff, the copy is now available to researchers, complementing UVA’s holdings on early American literature. Knowing when to acquire (or not) an item for a collection is a skill curators sharpen as their subject expertise and experience in the field deepens.

In addition to explaining the intricacies of the acquisitions process, A Curator’s Wunderkammer showcases materials representing book histories from across the globe. Featuring holdings in several languages and created at different times and in different geographical regions, the catalogue allows, as Whitesell explained was his intention, for readers to create serendipitous correlations, unexpected connections, and thoughtful comparisons between the materials featured in the catalogue. Items created outside the Anglo-American and European written traditions especially benefit from Whitesell’s approach, which cleverly posits the influence that global book history has had on American book history and production. Too often our view of what is American is exclusively Anglo-centric, and A Curator’s Wunderkammer features a few examples challenging this view: Item 23, an 1875 copy of volume 1, number 15 of Tang Fan Gong Bao (“The Oriental”), was the first Chinese-language American newspaper to be consistently published in the United States. This issue was published by owner Chock Wong, based in San Francisco, who was applying for US citizenship at the time. A similar item is Proposed plan of the settlement of the hacienda of San Lorenzo (1866; item 22), by Cornelius Boyle, a doctor turned Confederate marshal general, and printed in Mexico at the Mexican Times Printing Office. Although published in English outside the United States, the prospectus’s focus is as American as its author, who made his career as a Confederate officer in Virginia, the state to which he returned after living in Mexico. Both items close Whitesell’s chapter on Jefferson, Virginia & American History, challenging our perceptions of what American history means. Yet there is space to continue pushing the boundaries of diversity and inclusion within book history: greater diversity could have been seen, for instance, in this chapter and the chapter on American literature, but it is also important to recognize that the availability of materials and the limitations on the exhibition space would have influenced inclusions and omissions from this publication.

The last two sections, Printing, Publishing & Book Arts and Omnium-Gatherum, are the most eclectic and intersectional in the catalogue. Items cover an impressive breadth in time, space, and culture, from a manuscript First World War memoir by a German soldier to an early example of pricking-style Bible verses for the blind; from an example of a rare straw marquety binding for a book published in 1774 to a fifteenth-century vellum fragment used as a frisket sheet; and from a nineteenth-century Egyptian-printed Turkish chronicle to a Thai Phra Malai manuscript of the same century, the catalogue lets readers make connections between seemingly disparate items, creating a sense of wonder with each page.

Whitesell concludes A Curator’s Wunderkammer with what is (in the reviewer’s opinion) one of the most exciting items featured: a manuscript of Jorge Luis Borges’s “La biblioteca total” (The Total Library) from August 1939 (item 64), which first appeared in the journal Sur. Borges’s essay, with its idea of the universal library, was the foundation of his story “La biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel), published in 1941. Reflecting on his selections for the exhibition, Whitesell asks readers, “Will my curious Wunderkammer, in its randomness and reflection of relentless collection building, invoke for some the Borgesian terrors of a universal library?” (102). Yet I found this catalogue neither relentless in its exposition nor random in its selection. On the contrary, as Borges wrote in La biblioteca de Babel, “La Biblioteca existe ab aeterno” (“The Library exists from eternity”); a curator builds and maintains those collections for posterity.

— Marian Toledo Candelaria, University of Virginia