18th Century Miscellany

When the Boston Athenaeum was founded in 1807, the eighteenth century had only just ended. The Revolutionary War was still within living memory. From its very beginning, the Athenaeum has played a role in preserving history as it was happening, and bringing cultural insight to Boston from around the world. Here are some highlights from the Athenaeum’s rich holdings of eighteenth-century materials, including items that entered the collection in the institution’s earliest years.

The Caponigro Collection: Boston in 1959

The Caponigro Collection: Boston in 1959

August 28-December 30, 2023

A Boston native, Paul Caponigro photographed the West End and Back Bay in 1959. Tantalized by the neighborhoods’ ruined state, Caponigro found beauty in the city’s decomposing forms. In this small series, the photographer focuses primarily on details within the demolition. Caponigro aestheticizes the ruins by turning wrecked homes, churches, and schools into abstracted
and sublime patterns.

Decontextualizing the neighborhoods, Caponigro photographs the West End and Back Bay as personal, intimate spaces worthy of contemplation. Caponigro centers on the neighborhoods’ liminal spaces— doorways, stoops, windows—spaces in-between. Fittingly, Caponigro photographs each site at a liminal moment, in the midst of destruction.

Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City

Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City

August 28 – December 30, 2023 in the Calderwood Gallery

During the mid-twentieth-century, two photographers captured Boston’s developing landscape: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman. Abbott, an acclaimed photographer, produced a 1934 photographic survey of Boston’s nineteenth-century buildings. Twenty-five years later, Shwachman, a lesser-known yet crucial city chronicler, began “The Boston Document” (1959–1968). This self-directed photographic series pictured Boston’s redevelopment.

The twentieth century witnessed great change in Boston’s topography. The city’s crooked, narrow streets were widened to make way for increased automobile traffic. Human-scaled buildings and small open spaces were usurped by skyscrapers and monumental plazas. The city’s skyline of spires and domes became punctuated with tall, boxlike office buildings. 

Photographing at different times in Boston’s history, Abbott and Shwachman’s series each explore ways of viewing, dissecting, and preserving Boston. Abbott approaches Boston from a distance, offering stoic views, oscillating between straightforward and oblique angles. Shwachman, a student of Abbott’s, amended her teacher’s approach by photographing Boston through a personal, subjective lens to highlight the city’s dynamism.

Examining how the photographers consider presence, tempo, materiality, and change within the city, Developing Boston invites visitors to explore Boston’s past, present, and future, and find their place within the city. 

As a coda to the exhibition, the Athenaeum collaborated with teen artists from Artists For Humanity to create photographs that explore Boston’s continued redevelopment in the twenty-first century. These images illustrate photography’s critical role in understanding, remembering, and preserving Boston and its many iterations. 

The collaboration with Artists For Humanity is supported by the Mass Cultural Council.

This exhibition is generously funded by the Polly Thayer Starr Charitable Trust.

Mapping Berenice Abbott’s Boston

Our friends at the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library published Mapping Berenice Abbott’s Boston, a companion to this exhibition. Using the Map Center’s Atlascope technology, Lauren Graves, exhibition curator, mapped the buildings in Abbott’s work as a way to explore different ways of viewing Boston’s history.

Related Programming

See the full list of related programming, including curator-led gallery talks.

Re-Reading Special Collections at the Boston Athenaeum

Re-Reading Special Collections at the Boston Athenæum
Ongoing installation beginning November 15, 2022

Re-Reading Special Collections at the Boston Athenaeum encompasses several permanent collection installations in our historic building, ranging from a long-term reinstallation of paintings and sculpture to short-term, focused exhibitions of light-sensitive items.

Re-Reading Special Collections reinterprets our National Historic Landmark building’s publicly-accessible first floor to reflect a more expansive view of American art and history across a range of media. The reinstallation focuses on the Henry Long Room, a large multi-functional area used as a permanent collection gallery, lecture hall, event space, and starting point for tours. By deploying archive-driven historical research and theoretically-informed interpretive frameworks, Re-Reading presents collections items with a critical eye toward the past. Showcasing a diverse array of rare books, works on paper, paintings, and sculptures, the installation brings a fresh perspective to lesser-known and beloved materials alike. This project was made possible by a Re-envisioning Permanent Collections Grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art.