MPL treasure trove is almost a Milwaukee secret
Everyone in Milwaukee knows the Art Museum with its sweeping wings and famous collection spanning centuries of artistic periods. Most have been to the Milwaukee Public Museum to stroll "The Streets of Old Milwaukee" or witness a dinosaur attack. Some have even been to Marquette's Haggerty Art Museum or the Milwaukee Historical Society.
But how many people have seen the Richard E. and Lucile Krug Rare Books Room, located in the Milwaukee Public Library's central and main building at 814 W. Wisconsin Ave.?
Sealed behind thick panes of glass in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room where no direct sunlight gets in, this second floor wing holds the Central Art Rarities Collection -- containing some of Milwaukee's most fascinating and precious items that citizens rarely see.
"Some of the books are ones from all of the special collections (including Humanities and others) that rarify over time," says Arts and Humanities Assistant Coordinator Mary Milinkovich, one of only a handful of people allowed to enter the rarities room and retrieve materials for viewing in an adjoining reception area.
"Some are actually 'artist books,' which are crosses between works of art and rare books. In addition to the printed work on the page, the book itself is a work of art," she explains.
Examples include Japanese art books, the former world-record for smallest printed book and a book of portrait stamps featuring figures' famous last words -- and encased in a small coffin.
One of the most well known non-print items is an original artwork from 1850 by German Romantic painter Carl Spitzberg entitled "The Bookworm." It was the only painting bequeathed by art collector René von Schleinitz that didn't end up at MAM.
It's a picture touched with whimsical humor and highly regarded in the art world; a tall canvas portrays a bespectacled scholar bathed in a shaft of sun while standing atop a ladder facing a lofty bookshelf. Between his legs and under one arm is a book, as well as one in each hand as he intently studies a page. The colorful painting hangs quietly in the darkness of the rarities room, although specific lights are turned on for viewings.
There are many natural history items and items of local historical interest here such as a letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Milwaukee Mayor Daniel W. Hoan, an oversized Milwaukee autograph book from 1898 and a complete 435 double-elephant folio plate set of John James Audubon's "Birds of America." This beautiful hand-colored and detailed picture book is often considered the best picture book ever produced and a copy sold at Christie's in 2000 for a hefty sum.
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Sweet -- I've been wanting to go in that room too for some time -- but it's never been open. I was thinking it was appointment only.
Nice job Brian! I've been in the MPL downtown and have been intrigued by the rarities room. Thanks for the info. Maybe I'll take my dad down there one of these days so he and I can peruse the offerings. Keep up the wonderful writings! :)
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