Treasures of the Athenaeum Part IV: Renewal, Growth & A Public Research Library, 1980-2017

PORTSMOUTH — The Dec. 23, 1981 collapse of the Foye Building on Market Square — and the subsequent renovation that created the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s current space — could be seen as the fall and rise of the membership museum and library, which is celebrating its bicentennial with a series of exhibits.

“In the last nearly 40 years we’ve gone from an accidental survivor of the 19th century to a modern research library,” said Richard Candee, who is co-curating “Treasures of the Athenaeum Part IV, 1980-2017: Renewal, Growth & A Public Research Library.”

The free exhibit opens Sept. 15 in the Randall Gallery at 9 Market Square with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m.

The Foye building, adjacent to the structure the Athenaeum has occupied since 1823, was undergoing basement renovations when its brick walls partially caved in.

“It took two years from the time the Foye building collapsed to the full reopening of the newly expanded Athenaeum,” Candee said. “By 1985 we suddenly had all this space and a new purpose, to reach out to the community to provide a safe repository for manuscripts, paintings, prints and ephemera.”

Candee and Athenaeum Proprietor Deborah M. Child as well as Photographic Collections Manager James Smith have selected a cornucopia of objects for the exhibit — from the original manuscript of Isles of Shoals poet Celia Thaxter’s “Sandpiper” and her painted pottery to 1960s Theatre-by-the-Sea posters,  the Smuttynose Island murder ax and a sampling of the Athenaeum’s nearly 28,000 historic images, as well as broadsides and ephemera.

Photographic Collections Manager James Smith said the exhibit is a window into what the Athenaeum is today and how the public can make use of it.

“The exhibit features a slideshow of about 40 historic images, a minuscule sampling of all the prints, daguerreotypes, cabinet cards, glass-plate negatives, stereocards, Polaroids and slides from the ever-expanding collection that is available online,” Smith said.

“Like the saying goes, ‘a photograph is worth a thousand words’ and each of the Athenaeum images does that. Each tells a story of Portsmouth, and its environs, people and culture.”
Candee said the last few decades have meant a new identity for the non-profit museum and library housed in the heart of Market Square.

“In 1980 we barely had 100 members,” he said. “Now we’ve quadrupled that and are performing an invaluable service to the other historical organizations in the city; we protect the manuscripts of historic houses, area churches and other organizations. We encourage others to look at what we’ve got. If this stimulates more research, we’re delighted.”

In 1989 when Indian Head Bank of Portsmouth was consolidating and moving its headquarters to Nashua, Candee said it found in its collections a number of George Washington letters, including the first U.S. president’s remarks during a 1789 visit to the Port City.

“Preserving documents like this is a public service the Athenaeum is happy to perform,” Candee said.

Candee will give a gallery talk Oct. 7 at 11 a.m. on the Athenaeum’s Research Library and its collections.

For reservations, call 603-431-2538.

The exhibit will be open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m.

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