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Kerouac's Harmonica, Malcolm X's Briefcase, Shelley's Locks on View at the New York Public Library

Friday, May 13, 2011

The glasses, rolling papers and pipe of the beat writer Jack Kerouac are on view at the New York Public Library, beginning on May 14. The glasses, rolling papers and pipe of the beat writer Jack Kerouac are on view at the New York Public Library, beginning on May 14. (Julia Furlan/WNYC)

Beginning on Saturday, visitors can get up close and personal with a lock of Mary Shelley's hair or Malcolm X's briefcase at the New York Public Library. In honor of the centennial of the library's famous lion-studded Schwarzman Building, a free exhibit called "Celebrating 100 years" lets visitors view varied and rare artifacts — from a 4,300-year-old Sumerian tablet to Virginia Woolf's cane.

The exhibition is separated into four areas — observation, society, creativity and contemplation — and all the artifacts on display come from the library's archives of thousands of pieces of art, historical documents and miscellany. All total, there are 250 items on view, including Charlotte Bronte's writing desk, the Declaration of Independence, a letter from Christopher Columbus, hand-written sheet music from John Coltrane, the first Gutenberg Bible, a handwritten score by Beethoven and Katharine Cornell's makeup box.

Clinical psychologist Randy Frost, who is one of the authors of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things" and teaches at Smith College, said that objects like those on display at the library make people feel connected to the people who owned them.

Jeny Holzer's truisms aren't just for t-shirts."These possessions connect us to things," he said. "They connect us to other people, they connect us to world events, they connect us to something we feel is maybe more important than we are."

Frost said visitors could feel like they were in the presence of Jack Kerouac himself when casting their eyes over his harmonica, pair of glasses, rolling papers and pipe, or feel like they know Jenny Holzer, the conceptual artist who created the snarky styrofoam cup pictured at right.

Some of the artifacts in the exhibit are not for the faint of heart. In an area labeled "Society," across from a case with photographs of the Little Rock Nine and buttons from the Civil Rights movement, stands the garb of a Ku Klux Klansmen upright in a glass case. Elsewhere in the exhibit, photo albums display inmates in Irish prisons in 1866.

The show's curator, Thomas Mellins, said that the library is a place to document all aspects of humanity — not just the pleasant ones.

"The library does not function as our collective conscience. It is our collective memory," he said. "The library's collection rests upon the fundamental notion that all knowledge is worth preserving."

"Celebrating 100 Years" will be on display at the New York Public Library from Saturday, May 14 through December 31.

A lock or two of Mary Shelley's hair is also on view at the library. It may make you squirm or it may be up your alley.

A lock or two of Mary Shelley's hair on view at the library is guaranteed to float your boat or make you squirm.

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