In the Thomas Jefferson Library Building of Bellerive’s University of Missouri-St. Louis, Julie Dunn-Morton can barely contain her excitement as she discusses the upcoming celebration of the 175th anniversary of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, where she’s served for almost two decades.
Barring further complications from COVID-19, that celebration officially commences in April, and Dunn-Morton (formally the Mercantile Library Endowed Curator of Fine Art Collections) sounds, frankly, stoked.
“The main celebration that we’ll have is a series of concurrent exhibitions,” she relates. “Really, we are reinstalling every gallery in the library. It’s big and it’s exciting. And it’s really drawing on collections and objects that people either have never seen before – they’ve never been displayed – or that haven’t been displayed for maybe 15, 20 years.
“So they’re going to be incredibly fresh and new for people. And even some of the pieces that have been on the wall – maybe about 5 percent of things that people have seen – they’re going to be presented in new contexts, so it really invites people to take a look at them once again.”
On its website, the Mercantile bills itself as “the oldest general library in continuous existence west of the Mississippi River,” and precious few other metro area institutions can rival its venerability and grandeur.
The forthcoming linked exhibitions take as their overall focus an exploration of Americana in the Mercantile’s collections, Dunn-Morton continues, with the main exhibition, in the library’s largest exhibition space, titled “A Nation, a City and Its First Library: Americana As a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 Years.”
“It really speaks to the goals and interests of our founders in the way that they collected these documents and maps and prints that were really recording westward expansion and the development of St. Louis,” she says. “We look nationally on that level, but then we also look at what ‘Americana’ means in St. Louis. And throughout this all, it’s the library’s role through its collections. So it’s multilayered, and it’s going to be really interesting.”
Dunn-Morton also sketches information on ancillary “specialized exhibitions: ‘firsts’ in the collection, like the first book of law, the first book of poetry – these are things that were published in St. Louis – so those have a specialized area of interest. We’re doing a special political exhibition … on the [1846-48] Mexican-American War and political and presidential roles in that.
“We’re doing a special exhibition on Charles Deas. We happen to be the institution in America with the most paintings by Charles Deas, a really important American artist, and we have several of his works that haven’t been on view, really, since the retrospective in Denver many years ago [at the Denver Art Museum in 2010]. So those will be out for people to enjoy.
“We have some presidential manuscripts – signatures on letters and other documents. George Catlin’s Indian portfolio prints will be up, complementing that with early objects and documents related to the fur trade in St. Louis.”
Dunn-Morton cautiously repeats a caveat that potential visitors should consult the library’s website for any potential changes or complications pursuant to the novel coronavirus before concluding, as exuberantly as ever, “People overuse the phrase ‘something for everyone’ – but it’s really going to be an amazing variety of materials that all kind of speak to America’s development.”
St. Louis Mercantile Library, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1 University Blvd., St. Louis, 314-516-7240, umsl.edu/mercantile