News of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Pittsburgh area, counsel from its leaders, and reflections from its members.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Interview with Allison Freyermuth, Curator of Historical Exhibition on Mormonism at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Photo courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia
Allison Freyermuth, Branch Head of the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Allison Freyermuth is head of the Rare Book Department at the Park Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. She curated a fabulous new exhibition at the Library entitled An American-born Faith: Writings from the First Century of Mormonism. The Library is steps away from the new Philadelphia Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In honor of the temple, this exhibition of rare writings has been created. It was truly a pleasure to speak with Allison and learn further insights about the exhibition, which will run through February 6, 2017. 

The Free Library of Philadelphia has 54 locations throughout the city, as well as the separate Rosenbach collection, which became an affiliate in 2013. This affiliation brought together two of the world's preeminent collections of rare books, artifacts, and manuscripts. "We are a huge system. The building that I am in, the main library - Parkway Central, was built in 1927. The rare book department has been where it is since 1949."  When asked about the mission of the Free Library, Allison shared: "As a public library we serve the community of Philadelphia by advancing literacy, guiding learning, and inspiring curiosity." Allison went on to describe the proximity of the Library to the Philadelphia Temple, and a surrounding building. "There is one building in between us - it used to be Family Court. It is the twin building to the Free Library - they are matching buildings. It's going to be turned into a boutique hotel - a very handsome building".

Photo by Jason Smith for Visit Philadelphia
Parkway Central Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia

Allison shared that many people had learned about the exhibit through social media. "We have had a huge amount of visitors. On Saturday we had over 100 people visiting the exhibit, which is amazing for us. We usually don't get that kind of traffic".

When asked about the acquisition of the pieces in the exhibition, Allison shared "Every single book in the exhibition is either owned by the Rare Book Department or the the Free Library itself. They were part of a circulating collection at one point, or they are from the Rosenbach Museum and Library collection. We borrowed one book from the University of Pennsylvania, I believe it is a Doctrine and Covenants from the 20's. About 17 items came from [the Rosenbach] collection, such as the Deseret Newspapers, a 1st edition Book of Mormon... and a little hymn book...there are around 70 items".
"We have an Americana Collection - some of the books came from that. Some came from the History of Books and Printing Collection - books that are printed in the Deseret Alphabet came from that. We have a very very extensive Children's Book Collection - some of the the primers came from that".

Part of the exhibition is traveler's descriptions of Mormon settlements and the faith. Allison tells us that Dr. Rosenbach had a keen interest in traveler's descriptions of the early west. "There are lots of books and memoirs about that. Most of them are books, no manuscript journals. The exhibit is very book heavy, containing all books, newspapers, and one photograph... for wall exhibits, text panels have been used." In the section of the exhibition about early Americans' reactions to the faith, Allison tells us that both pros and cons were touched on, but they did not go too heavy on anti-Mormon literature and tried to be balanced.

Allison described a positive general reaction to the exhibit. The Library has not been criticized for doing an exhibit on just one religion, though they are a public institution. They have not had any pushback so far, for which she is glad.

When asked if there were any general questions about the church that the exhibit might answer or clarify, Allison said "We...tried to do a historical perspective of the first 100 years. It definitely touches on scriptures, tenets, and what is believed, but there is a lot more to it than that. There is the missionary experience which I found really fun to put together, and there is Deseret inventing this whole new alphabet, which might be the most visually interesting part of it. We tried to give people a perspective of what it was like".

An American-born Faith: Writings from the First Century of Mormonism is in the Library's largest exhibition space, however there are other compelling galleries in the Rare Book Department. "People are welcome to look at the other cases and other exhibits. We've got a huge collection of Edgar Allen Poe, a huge collection of Americana, and a Charles Dickens collection that's amazing. We have a Charles Dickens taxidermy pet raven, 'Grip'. People who have visited An American Born Faith, most of them, have...wandered around and looked at everything else".

The Rare Book Department is open Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and this exhibition is open the same days and hours. It is free to the public.

Allison graduated from the Philadelphia Arts and Business Council of Greater Philadelphia Designing Leadership class on April 15, 2015. She received her MLIS degree from Louisiana State University in 1995, and she has been working for the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1997.

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