Beinecke Library unites past and present in spring exhibit
The “Revisiting the Past – Imagining the Future” exhibit at the Beinecke features artifacts such as cowboy diaries and Japanese playing cards that transcend cultural and temporal boundaries.
Khuan-Yu Hall, Contributing Photographer
On Jan. 27, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library unveiled its spring exhibit “Revisiting the Past — Imagining the Future.” Featuring artifacts spanning centuries and cultures, the exhibit is intended to add new perspectives to popular readings of history.
The process for building the exhibit began about a year ago when Timothy Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, reached out to his colleagues at Sterling Memorial Library, sparking a new collaboration between the Beinecke and other collections at Yale.
Young and his team gathered 36 material “vignettes” ranging from medieval manuscripts to modern poetry collections. Each vignette is a group of a few items — a few books, costumes, photos or pieces of art that all show different aspects of a common theme.
“Let’s look at our collections and see if there’s something that seems to be very solid and accepted as a historical item,” Young said. “Let’s see if we can put it together with something that’s new that either challenges it, or contradicts it or says that the same kind of thinking is continuing over several 100 years, but let’s just try to make some interesting comparisons between older and newer materials.”
Young said that libraries often find it challenging to include marginalized voices because they are largely excluded by those who write the history books. With this exhibit, Young hopes to put some of those often-forgotten voices in dialogue with more traditional pieces in the Beinecke’s collection.
One of Young’s favorite pieces in the exhibit is the pairing of a cowboy’s diary from the 1880s with a story from the 1980s about an immigrant moving to California to become a nurse. For Young, these two stories offer different versions of what it means to move west, deepening his understanding of what westward expansion and migration mean across generations of Americans.
With this exhibit, Young was also excited to show viewers that the Beinecke’s collection includes more than just printed materials. For example, the library possesses costumes from Barbara Hammer, a filmmaker who pioneered lesbian film, and a puppet from playwright and director Lee Breuer, whose plays often “mashed up classical themes.”
Going forward, Young hopes to arrange more exhibits like this one that involve different collections, scholars and student perspectives, especially as Yale’s different rare book libraries become integrated into the Beinecke collection.
While walking through the exhibit, Michael Ofodile ’26 said he appreciated the opportunity to bring his own past into conversation with the vignettes and to see himself in the works.
“It’s really cool to see how different cultures converge on similar things and ways to have fun,” Ofodile said, while looking at some playing cards from 19th century China and 20th century Japan. “When I was little, I used to play with playing cards, and it’s interesting to see other places a long time ago doing that too.”
Beinecke research assistant Isabel Prioleau ’25 said the exhibit added a new dimension to the readings she does for her French class by featuring work from assigned authors and contemporaneous works. Prioleau said she looks forward to bringing parts of the exhibit back to her class.
Prioleau added that she also appreciates the variety in the exhibit, which she said sets an exciting tone for the year at the Beinecke.
“What felt new and different about this exhibition to me was how open-ended it is,” Prioleau said. “I like the fact that everyone can be inspired in their own way. The exhibition feels less like it intends to create a single experience for viewers, and more like it’s celebrating all the various experiences visitors might have.”
The exhibit will run in the Beinecke library from now until July 9.