02.06.2024

Harriet Hayden Albums exhibition announced

Harriet Hayden photo with title of show

First-ever major exhibition of the Harriet Hayden albums, displaying original photographs of notable Black Bostonian and national abolitionists

The exhibition opens March 20, 2024

Inspired by the life and work of Beacon Hill-based abolitionist Harriet Bell Hayden, Framing Freedom: The Harriet Hayden Albums brings together rarely seen works and examines Black abolitionists’ public identities, private lives, visual culture, and social activism through the perspective of a Black woman’s photograph albums from the mid-1800s.

The exhibition centers on two photograph albums once owned by anti-slavery activist Harriet Hayden. Together, the albums contain 87 cartes-de-visite. The 2⅛ x 3½-inch portrait photographs portray many of Boston’s most prominent Black abolitionist figures – including suffragist Virginia Hewlett Douglass, lawyer Robert Morris, educator Elizabeth N. “Lizzie” Smith, and Dr. John V. DeGrasse – and include rare examples by makers like the Black landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister.

Framing Freedom offers a new lens to view the significance of Harriet and Lewis Hayden’s extensive social network and their influence in the social justice movements of their day. While her husband, Lewis Hayden, is better known for his public activism, these works encourage us to recognize the home-based activism and movement contributions of Harriet Hayden.

The exhibition features Harriet’s photograph albums alongside objects from the 19th century anti-slavery movement in Boston, including the only two known portraits of Harriet, displayed together for the first time.

This special exhibition is co-curated by Makeda Best, PhD, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Oakland Museum of California, a specialist in nineteenth-century photography, race, and gender, and Virginia Reynolds Badgett, PhD, former Assistant Curator at the Boston Athenaeum and scholar of American art and material culture.

“The Harriet Hayden Albums exhibition draws much-needed attention to Harriet Hayden’s role in Boston’s abolitionist movement, centering the Hayden home as a crucial site for the formation and execution of a societal crusade to which they devoted their lives,” says Makeda Best.

“By integrating Harriet’s cartes-de-visite with objects from the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement in Boston, the exhibition offers a new contextual lens through which one can view the significance of the Haydens’ extensive social network and their historic home on Beacon Hill – located blocks from the Boston Athenaeum – to understand better their influence in the social justice movements of their day,” Best says.

In 1844, Harriet Hayden, her husband Lewis Hayden, and their son, Joseph, escaped slavery in Lexington, Kentucky. By 1849 they settled on the north slope of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where Lewis opened a clothing store on Cambridge Street. It became the second largest establishment in Boston to be owned by a Black man. Their home at 66 Phillips Street served as a special place of refuge during the height of activity on the Underground Railroad, helping hundreds of self-emancipated sojourners on their journey to freedom in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

In the early 1860s, Harriet received two cartes-de-visite photograph albums as gifts from fellow Boston anti-slavery activists Robert Morris and Dr. Samuel Birmingham. Harriet Hayden’s carte-de-visite albums offer a unique window into a close-knit and well-organized Black activist community and present an opportunity to re-evaluate conventional understandings of the domestic sphere and Boston’s broader abolitionist presence.

“The legacy of Harriet Hayden deserves to be better known. The albums provide insight into an under-recognized history, revealing the interconnectedness of individuals’ identities in a crucial moment in American history,” said John Buchtel, the Boston Athenaeum’s Curator of Rare Books and Head of Special Collections. “The Boston Athenaeum’s Harriet Hayden Albums exhibition tells a fuller story of our national and regional abolitionist history, and how Boston’s past and present are linked.”

Additional exhibition features connect Harriet Hayden’s carte-de-visite albums to a societal and historic narrative arc that transports the viewer from the Beacon Hill neighborhood into both the public sphere and the Hayden home. Artifacts include photographs, prints, illustrated rare books, broadsides and ephemera, American paintings, decorative arts, and personal objects associated with key individuals and the exhibition’s themes of race, gender, representation, and community.

The exhibition reflects several years of ongoing work to conserve, digitize, and research the Harriet Hayden albums and bring them to a broader understanding of the importance of social networks and anti-slavery activism.

“I am deeply proud of the The Harriet Hayden Albums exhibition ,” said Leah Rosovsky, Stanford Calderwood Director at the Boston Athenaeum. “It builds on several past exhibitions that have explored how Boston’s Black community is connected to politics and culture. Harriet Hayden’s story, and the stories of all those in this exhibition, are important additions to a full understanding of Boston’s rich history.”


Framing Freedom: The Harriet Hayden Albums is generously supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, Cabot Family Charitable Trust, Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Mass Humanities, Mass Cultural Council, and Fiduciary Trust.

See details on the Harriet Hayden Albums exhibitions page.

12.11.2023

Library on a Hill – VIM magazine article

First page of the article.

Proprietor Henry Sinclair Sherrill published an article on the Boston Athenaeum in VIM magazine. It is an appreciation and history and is well worth reading. We include the opening paragraph here, yet we encourage you to read the full article.

“I hold the Boston Athenaeum Library close to my heart and in the highest esteem. From the moment I first entered its red and brass front door in 1970, passing beneath the high-ceilinged entryway flanked by massive statues, I felt a sense of excitement and assurance. Over the past years, it has been such a welcoming privilege to read and study inside a museum filled with books, knowing that each book can lead to anything and everything: knowledge, imagination, self-education, greater potential, escape, and delight. A library fills me with a sense of wonder.”

Read the full article. It starts on page 82.

11.08.2023

Boston Athenaeum receives a Mass Cultural Council grant for building expansion

Person viewing photograph contact sheets in the Athenaeum's new exhibition gallery.

The Cultural Facilities Fund, run jointly by the Mass Cultural Council and MassDevelopment, awarded the Boston Athenaeum a $145,000 grant to support its recent renovation and expansion. The grant is among 28 totaling $3.14 million for cultural facilities and projects throughout Massachusetts.

The Athenaeum’s renovation and expansion preserved the beauty of its historic building while providing more space for programs and events, varied art and historical exhibitions, reading and research, and more opportunities for connection. The project was completed in the Fall of 2022.

“The expansion is helping us create a more welcoming space that serves more people than ever,” said Leah Rosovsky, Stanford Calderwood Director. “It helps us preserve our historic structure and adapt to the needs of the twenty-first century. This kind of public funding from the state and the Governor’s office is crucial to the success of cultural institutions all over Massachusetts.”

The grants are from MassDevelopment and Mass Cultural Council, two state agencies jointly administering the Cultural Facilities Fund (CFF, which invests in the acquisition, design, repair, renovation, expansion, and construction of nonprofit and municipal cultural facilities.

View the full list of recipients.

09.25.2023

Athenaeum hosts Community Day

Event attendees view a rare book on display.

The Boston Athenaeum invites the Boston community to its Community Day open
house on Saturday, September 30, welcoming all residents, visitors, families, and friends across
the city to explore the landmark building’s five galleried floors and enjoy performances, art
activities, and displays of special collections from 10 am to 4 pm. The event is free and open to
everyone.

This open house event at the renowned library, museum, and cultural center will include
activities for guests spread throughout the building, including a bookmaking workshop by book
artist and printmaker Annie Silverman; a demonstration by the Athenaeum’s conservation team
on the creation of paste-paper, which is used in both book arts and conservation; special
collections show and tell by its curators; musical performances by local artists Joe Sabourin,
Grooversity, and Anibal Cruz; a treasure hunt and hawk-sighting tour; and much more.

“We are a member-supported organization that anyone can join,” said Leah Rosovsky, the
Athenaeum’s Director. “We invite everyone to explore and experience the books, exhibits and
programming that make the Athenaeum such a unique place.”

There will be the chance to meet renowned Roxbury artist, book illustrator, and educator Ekua Holmes, known for her mixed-media collage art investigating family histories, childhood, and the power of self-determination. The Children’s Library’s visual centerpiece is a vibrant streetscape mural by Holmes and the original collages created for the mural will also be on display.

Visitors will also see the recent expansion and renovation enhanced the classic beauty of the
building but also added space for more programs and events, more varied art, more places for
reading and research, and more opportunities for connection.

09.06.2023

Clive Martin shares his love of the BA

Man with white hair reading a book while sitting in a comfy red leather chair.

Excerpts from an interview with Clive Martin, 10-year member and docent

What drew you to become a member of the BA?

Clive: I’ve been a member of the BA for 10 years. Before I retired, I used to work just down the road actually, and I would come in here on my lunchtimes and just look around.

Ten years ago, my Boston Globe subscription came with promotions including a reduced-price membership to the BA. I thought, “So anyone can join? I’ll try it!” I love libraries, I’ve always loved learning and reading and meeting like-minded people, so it was a no-brainer…I never looked back!

What are you working on at the BA currently?

Clive: It’s rare that I just get a chance to sit down and read! That’s what I always think of doing, but what I come here for is my docent tours, and my book groups, Dickens and Literary Conversations, and I’m also a member of Poetry, and all three of those are very active. It just keeps me very very busy.

How has the BA supported your interests? What have you discovered here?

Clive: Oh, what have I discovered?! …I mean, it stretches your mind and your intellect. The book talks, the concerts, the discussions, the book groups, and the friends you make. …and I love the collections.

I’ve learned a lot about cultural history, and how it’s presented. We [docents] must ensure our cultural history is presented honestly. For instance, the rehanging of the paintings here was so thoughtfully done. Now we tell a much fuller story, with the re-hanging, about our country’s art and history, including so much that’s been neglected or ignored.

What’s your favorite spot in the building?

Clive: Oh, I have a lot of favorite spots… Now you’re going to give away all my good secrets! My favorite place to sit and read is on the fourth-floor gallery. There’s a winged armchair. You get lost in it. I do like the art library. It’s fantastic. Great places to sit, surrounded by all the art books.

If you go to the gallery levels, you can find chairs no one knows about. It’s nice to sit down and get lost. The only person who will find you there is the security guard

What is your favorite perk of being a member of the BA?

Clive: There’s so many… If you boil it all away, it’s the people. There’s no lack of people to talk to, who are glad to engage in conversation– really good discussions with interesting people.

What fictional character or historical figure would you expect to find in the Athenaeum?

Clive: Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. And her husband Rev. Edward Casaubon. I would not be at all surprised if I ran into them in here. Dorothea Brooke is full of the delight in learning and the love of literature, the love of philosophy, and the love of theology.

I would expect to find her reading on the 5th floor. And Rev. Casaubon would be studying the books in the King’s Chapel Library collection, turning the pages, and inhaling the accumulated dust that has built up since 1698 when they were shipped to Boston.

Learn more about membership.

08.22.2023

Exhibition of Berenice Abbott and Irene Schwachman photographs opens

Two side by side black and white photographs of Boston buildings.

First-ever joint presentation of Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman images, supplemented by contemporary Artists For Humanity Boston photos

The Boston Athenaeum’s newest exhibition opens August 28. Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City features the first joint presentation of work by the two pioneering photographers of the 1930s and 1960s as they captured a Boston in the midst of great change and redevelopment.

Abbott’s 1934 photos and Shwachman’s 1959-68 images capture many of the same locations 30 years apart, including the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, West End, Beacon Hill, and Adams Square (now Government Center), with some locations and buildings still recognizable today, others utterly transformed by redevelopment. They also include historical images of “New City Hall” and the Prudential Tower under construction in the 1960s. The exhibition will be open through the end of December and available with a first-floor admission ticket.

Leah Rosovsky, the Boston Athenaeum’s Stanford Calderwood Director, said, “For anyone who loves exploring the modern history of Boston and the evolution of photographic technique and composition, ‘Developing Boston’ promises to be a rich and inspiring experience. We are also so honored and excited to partner with and showcase the teen photographers of Artists For Humanity as we work to deepen the Athenaeum’s connections with people from all of Boston neighborhoods and present new perspectives on our city and its history.”

The photographers have notable personal connections, as well as differing approaches to photographing the city. Abbott approaches Boston from a distance, offering stoic views, oscillating between straightforward and oblique angles. Shwachman, a onetime student of Abbott’s who photographed alongside, and even worked for a time as Abbott’s darkroom printer, amended her teacher’s approach by photographing Boston through a personal, subjective lens to highlight the city’s dynamism.

“By examining the works of Abbott and Shwachman in conversation, Developing Boston explores how each photographer viewed, dissected, and preserved Boston as it evolved throughout the twentieth century. As Abbott employed her documentary practice to create clear sightlines between the past and present, Shwachman developed her practice to signal towards Boston’s uncertain future,” says Lauren Graves, Ph.D., assistant curator at the Boston Athenaeum. “The documentary approaches of both photographers, whose work has never previously been presented in a joint exhibition, shine together to present a side of Boston’s buildings and public spaces that would have otherwise been lost. We hope that this exhibition helps Bostonians and visitors alike to find their place in the city.”

Building on this documentary photography exhibition, the Boston Athenaeum has also partnered with Artists For Humanity to add to the exhibition a selection of contemporary images of Boston made over the last two years, bringing teenage AFH photographers and their visual take on Boston into conversation with the seminal works of Abbott and Shwachman.

“Boston Athenaeum was so invested in the teens’ vision—from start to finish,” said AFH’s Photography Director Mary Nguyen, “They trusted that the teens were the experts in representing their own city through their lenses. The teens felt empowered, embraced, and celebrated as artists, and as young people, by such a historic institution and a great partner.”

“This will be the first time having my artwork in an exhibition outside of AFH,” said AFH Teen Photographer, Victoria “Tori” Kutta. “Being able to tour a famous place like Boston Athenaeum, where thousands of people visit, and then exhibit my own photography there—it’s surreal!”

AFH’s Studio team is so proud of their artwork being added to the Athenaeum’s collections, continuing the photographic story of Boston started by Abbott and Schwachman.

More about Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman:

Berenice Abbott (1898 – 1991) was commissioned in 1934 by architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock to photograph American cities along the east coast, including Boston. She spent the next few decades continuing to photograph American cities, most notably, New York. When she returned to the Boston area in 1958, the Athenæum’s then-director, Walter Muir Whitehill, asked Abbott to reprint her 1934 Boston series to help the Athenaeum meet its goals of preserving imagery of the city’s past and collecting the work of contemporary artists.

Irene Shwachman (1915 – 1988) began her nine-year, self-directed project “The Boston Document” in 1959, during which she documented a Boston amid change, growth, progress, and decline. Shwachman considered “The Boston Document”, totaling over 3,500 negatives, her “contribution to America.” The collection captures the demolition of Boston’s West End neighborhood and other renewal projects. In 1962, the Boston Athenæum hosted an exhibition of “The Boston Document” and continued acquiring Shwachman’s work throughout the decade. The Boston Athenaeum today holds the largest collection of Shwachman photographs outside of her archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.

In a 1972 letter, Shwachman wrote to Stephen Jackerie, the Worcester Art Museum’s Associate Photography Curator: “In the back of my mind I have always had a wish to have my prints shown with Berenice Abbott’s” – a dream that, 51 years later, is now coming true at the Athenaeum.

This exhibition, Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City, is generously funded by the Polly Thayer Starr Charitable Trust. The Mass Cultural Council supports the collaboration with Artists For Humanity.