#1 rule of museums that are not the Rosenbach: DO NOT TOUCH.
#1 rule of the Rosenbach: Wash your hands, then touch everything.
At this point, you might be wondering what exactly is the Rosenbach—and why we’re telling you to go touch all of the artifacts in it. And the answer, dear reader, is simple.
Unlike many other institutions that dedicate themselves to rare books, you, as a non–academic public, are allowed to interact with the collection directly. The museum policy is that you can touch the manuscripts and folios with your bare hands, IF, and only if, you wash them first. According to curators, scientists have concluded that clean hands cause less damage to books than the gloves (because #friction).
The Rosenbach Museum & Library, situated on 20th and Delancey streets, is a hidden gem. It was founded in the family townhouse in 1954 after the death of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother, Philip. The pair were renowned professional dealers of manuscripts, fine arts and rare texts. The museum holds over 3,000 rarities, folios and manuscripts, with the brothers’ own personal collection at its core. This features Benjamin Franklin’s first Poor Richard's Almanack, outline notes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Last week, I was able to visit the museum with one of my classes, and we were able to handle a variety of texts under curator supervision. Beyond the historical and cultural value of the experience, it was an incredibly humbling and humanizing one as well. We tend to think of the famous authors as superhuman geniuses who wrote their masterpieces in a day. Yet, as I analyzed Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses (he had great handwriting by the way), I smiled to myself as I read his sidenotes and his scratches. Joyce, of course, would have probably liked to be recognized for his work—a classic for generations to come. Yet his mistakes and afterthoughts also provide a completely different dimension to his persona: the human side, something that a published, bound copy of his work would never provide as explicitly.
We also engaged with other texts from different epochs, such as Marianne Moore’s poetry, Lorene Cary’s Black Ice and Bram Stoker’s outlines for Dracula. It was incredibly fascinating to see how questions of technology, creative process and personality factored into handwritten and typed notes. In one of the pages from the Dracula notes, Stoker wrote Dracula!Dracula!Dracula! over and over again. Many scholars interpret it as the moment that, in the development of the novel, he figured out how he’d name that book.
It was thrilling, for both my class and me, to stumble on these little moments of joy in the texts of incredible literary history.
If you’re interested in just checking out the collection from afar:
Pay $5 with a valid student ID if you just want to walk around the museum. Check out the reading room if you want to get away from Penn and dig into your new favorite book. It’s also free on Tuesdays.
If you want to get handsy with Shakespeare:
Pay $11 to participate in a hands–on tour. What does this entail? You go on a specified date and time with a curator who is an expert in the topic that you choose. He or she will go over the material with you and provide you personal access to touch the rare items. Current hands–on tours include: Melville Herman and Moby Dick, a collection of love letters, Stoker’s Dracula notes, Early Hebrew Books from the 17th Century, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare folios and manuscripts, amongst other cool texts I’m sure you’d like to get all over.
Have a specific interest? Email the museum to schedule a one–on–one appointment with a text of your choice. A curator will be with you during the appointment to help you understand and work with the text.
Phone: (215) 732-1600
Address: 2008-2010 Delancey Place
Tuesday and Friday: Noon—5pm
Wednesday and Thursday: Noon—8pm
Saturday and Sunday: Noon—6p
For upcoming events, click here