Sunday, February 21, 2016

Treasures of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum

For several years I have been aware of the existence here in Duluth of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, but had no idea what it was. The museum is housed in a former Christian Science church building within a block of the Kitchi Gammi Club and across from St Luke's Hospital. For reasons unclear to me I assumed that it was $7 or $12 to get in, so I was lacking in sufficient time or curiosity to actually investigate.

When I learned last week that a private collection of Dylan memorabilia was going to be displayed here in May, in conjunction with Duluth Dylan Fest, it seemed worthwhile to check it out.

First surprise: it's Free. Second surprise: it's awesome.

Yesterday I discovered that the Karpeles Manuscript Library here in Duluth is one of a dozen such Karpeles Manuscript Libraries around the country, in cities from New York to Charleston to Texas and Santa Barbera, and all manner of places in between. It is purportedly the world’s largest private collection of original manuscripts and documents.

According to Wikipedia the library was founded in 1983 by California real estate magnates David and Marsha Karpeles, with the goal of stimulating interest in learning, especially in children. How did we end up with a Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Duluth? As it turns out, Dr. Karpeles is a graduate of Denfeld High, one of the high schools here in our city, and a graduate of UMD. Upon coming home for a class reunion he was asked why he didn't have a Karpeles Manuscript Library here in Duluth, whereupon he purchased the retired church structure and made it home to an ongoing series of exhibits.

Some people collect cars (Jay Leno), others collect art or sports memorabilia or Hollywood movie posters. David and Marsha Karpeles collected historical documents. In addition to their dozen or so manuscript libraries, the Karpeles have as many as 200 mini-exhibits in schools and office buildings around the U.S.  In this 2004 article and interview in the L.A. Times the Karpeles share how they got into collecting:

In 1977, we took two of our kids to the Huntington Library in San Marino. The kids had no interest whatever. We had two cases left to see when they started asking if we were ready to go. But then my daughter Leslie said, 'Daddy, Daddy, here's a letter written by Thomas Jefferson.' My son Mark found one by George Washington and said excitedly, 'Look at the cross-outs. He made mistakes just like me!' They knew they were looking at originals famous people had touched, a completely different thing from just reading the documents. All of the sudden, everything changed for them.

At the library I was told that if I wanted to buy rare documents, I had to go to Sotheby's or Christie's auction houses.... So I sent away for catalogs. Most of the things for sale were unimportant, but then I turned a page and almost fell off my chair. It showed [one version of] the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, at an estimated sale price of $40,000. I got it for exactly that much, though now it's worth $2 [million] to $3 million.

The current exhibit in Duluth features manuscripts and documents from Robert Fulton, inventor, engineer, and artist who brought steamboating from the experimental stage to commercial success. There are original diagrams for the development of the torpedo, as well as documents pertaining to the creation and acquisition of the early ironclads that fount in the Civil War (many years after his death.) Fulton's creations helped make the young United States competitive in the naval battles during the War of 1812.

In the late 1700s Fulton proposed (to France) a submarine concept that he names the Nautilus, but they rejected the notion, for skuking around underwater and sinking enemy ships like that was not "an honorable way to fight."

It was in Paris that Fulton began to execute his first steamboat ideas, with a large paddlewheel on the side of the boat for moving the vessel. Returning to the U.S. his steamboat concept found suitable funding in New York and by 1807 he had a 150 foot steamship. Fulton boat required more efficient waterways and he went on to lobby for the Erie Canal. Documents and drawings pertinent to these developments are on display in Duluth.


If you find Fulton and steamships to be a tad obscure for super-interest, other displays and amazing finds have been through this way and more will assuredly return in the future. One such document that I saw yesterday is The Final Declaration of Allegiance Treaty signed by every Indian tribe in the United States and by the President of the United States. Not all of the chiefs who signed wrote their names, but all left their thumbprints.

The manuscripts are displayed in special cases which have little devices to monitor moisture levels within the case. Moisture is what damages old documents.

Near the entrance of the sanctuary there are a number of items of special interest to people who find ancient Egyptian history exciting. There are small statues of Egyptian gods as well as etched sandstone from the era when Moses lived in Pharaoh's palace on the Nile. Pretty heady stuff.

Other themes that have been displayed here over the years include Manifest Destiny (Treaties and docments pertaining to the expansion of our nation's boundaries), The Dreyfus Affair, Cortez + Pizarroand theConquest of the New World, Ferdinand and Isabella's Letter to the Pope announcing Their Possession of The New World on the Return of Columbus, and plenty more. One that especially caught my eye was titled Man's Inhumanity To Man, with documents pertaining to discrimination, oppression, slavery, violence and religious freedom. This collection includes the original version of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as well as the Counter-Emancipation Proclamation signed by Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

The peacefulness in the sanctuary was soothing. 

To see what other historic, musical, literary and scientific themes the Karpeles have so graciously collected and shared, visit this page.

Discovering the Manuscript Library in Duluth felt like accidentally uncovering a rare treasure. Thank you, David and Marsha, for this gift.

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