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Curating Rare Books & Manuscripts, Suzanne Karr Schmidt

Suzanne Karr Schmidt is the George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Newberry, Chicago’s Independent Research Library since 1887. Previously, she was the Assistant Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, after holding a postdoctoral Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship there. Suzanne has a PhD in the History of Art from Yale University and a BA from Brown University. She loves curating exhibitions and writing about unusual forms of early printmaking.

We talk to Suzanne about her experiences in curating Islamic manuscript material, storytelling through exhibition making and why preserving the past is important for the future.

How did you embark on a career as a curator?

I grew up in Washington, D.C., where I was surrounded by many museums that are open to the public for free (like Chicago’s Newberry Library where I work now). Later I was an intern at many of them, and also spent plenty of research time at the Library of Congress. My parents originally worked in film history and preservation, but moved into other cultural areas: my mother, Kathleen Karr, wrote prize-winning historical fiction for young adults (The Great Turkey Walk), while my father, Lawrence F. Karr, was a software engineer who supported databases for important efforts such as NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and for some of the first Holocaust museums. He also completed a physics PhD at Brown University that was instrumental in keeping him from being drafted for Vietnam.

I went to Brown and then Yale University for a PhD in art history. Rare Book School, with its intensive workshops for book nerds, brought bibliography and art together as I researched art on paper and in books that pushed the boundaries of user interaction beyond mere page turning. This topic, the “Renaissance Pop-Up Book,” became my PhD dissertation, 2018 monograph, and parts of it inspired exhibitions I would collaborate on and curate at Harvard and the Art Institute of Chicago. This emphasis on functionality and materiality is still informing the exhibition "Pop Up Books Through the Ages" that is opening at the Newberry in February 2023!

As Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The Newberry, what is a typical day like?

I am responsible for the printed works of continental Europe from 1500 to 1800 and most manuscripts before 1800. On a daily basis, I propose acquisitions, curate exhibitions, write about books, and coordinate class visits and seminars with our Center for Renaissance Studies. Reference requests come in from the public and from current fellows, and I often take snapshots of a book for researchers who can't come to the library in person. I love going down these rabbit holes, as the adjacent books on the shelves are usually new to me.

The power of browsing is real. Even five years into this job, I try to make time every day to find something unexpectedly spectacular! With approximately 27.5 miles of stacks space, I will never be able to look at every pre-1800 book, but I enjoy picking a new category or even a shelf I haven't gone through item by item. Bindings, annotations, unusual illuminations, even watermarks are all fair game, and if there are things left in the books by previous owners, even better!

Can you share your experiences in curating Islamic manuscript material?

The Newberry owns a select group of pre-1800 Islamic manuscripts ranging from world exploration and astronomy to devotional texts, as well as fragments. I have shared them with classes and other visitors, and am working with our catalogers to help improve their discoverability. Most recently, we received a prayer manuscript in Arabic with Persian notes as a gift from the Bexley Seabury Seminary in 2017. Though we are not actively adding them to the collection by purchase, we regularly exhibit these works and write about them and their printed counterparts. For instance, I spoke in January 2020 at the College Art Association conference in Chicago about hybrid books, including an in-depth look at a gorgeous album of sixteenth-century paper art made in Istanbul for the European tourist trade that I’ll discuss later.

What are your thoughts on the role of Curator in storytelling and ensuring diverse histories are presented authentically?

Whether developing an online article, an exhibition script, or a monograph, the curator is responsible for bringing these narratives to new audiences in an engaging way, but one that is also true to the source material. When I don’t understand how a book is made or its iconography, I look at the scholarly literature, but also try to find comparable examples in the collection, talk to our conservators and other experts from scholars to paper-makers.

How do you address the provenance of manuscripts and is this important for collecting institutions?

The Newberry takes provenance seriously when acquiring new books. We are committed to consulting and developing relationships with communities whose cultures are represented in our collection. Regarding materials that were acquired earlier in the library’s history, we do our best to research and provide information about former owners in the online cataloging.

What are some of the most interesting Islamic manuscripts in The Newberry collection?

The Tarih-i Yeni Dünya, el-musemma be hadis-i nev is a colorful, compact manuscript in Turkish Arabic script dating from around 1600 and illuminated on non-European glazed paper. Its contents depict the Americas, observations based primarily on Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s Navigazioni et viaggi, a compilation of travel writing first published in Venice in 1565. It is one of nineteen similar manuscripts; Sultan Murad III (ruled 1574-95) was likely the recipient of the original text. Here is an image of the imagined wildlife from the Americas.

The Tarih is part of the Newberry’s Edward E. Ayer collection, which is rich in printed and manuscript accounts of Indigenous peoples, non-Native exploration of and settler-colonialism in the Americas, and also includes an important group of manuscripts by ancient astronomer Ptolemy. One is an Arabic translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest with copious illuminations of the constellations. The text is a thirteenth-century adaptation by Nasîr al-Dîn al-Tûsî that remained in use until the book was produced in 1666. Here are adjoining images of Scorpio and Libra.

Can you tell us more about the rare crossover of Islamic-European manuscripts in your collection?

One particularly fascinating Newberry item is a large printed wall map in Turkish entitled “Kemâlîyle naqš olunmıš jümle jihân nümûnesi,” or “Perfect and Complete Engraving and Description of the Whole World” and signed by a man named Hajji Ahmed. Opinions have differed on his identity and whether or not he worked with Venetian cartographers, possibly including Ramusio, the source for the Tarih, but there is ample evidence for the involvement of an Ottoman scholar. Initially produced as six woodblocks in 1559-69 Venice, it was immediately suppressed by the city council. A few impressions were printed in 1795 when the blocks were rediscovered. This cordiform map of the world (in the shape of a heart) was based in part on a design by French cartographer Oronce Finé from 1534, but also updates the content to include the celestial hemispheres at the bottom. The Newberry is just completing digitizing hundreds of early maps from the Franco Novacco collection, and Ahmed’s is one of many that will be available in high resolution.

The Newberry has a few collaboratively hand-decorated albums that document international travel and the social circle of the owners, but in one case it is the paper itself that has traveled farthest. The so-called Liber Exoticus contains 280 leaves of Italian-sourced paper decorated in the Ottoman “silhouette” style, partially filled in with European inscriptions. The later title page erroneously ascribes the paper-making style to China, also referencing Babylon and Egypt. Turkish paper scholar and paper artist Nedim Sönmez has kindly confirmed for us that the paper is identifiable to 1580s Constantinople, a city also associated with its many images of tulips. The preparation process folded the paper sheet together with color-soaked parchment stencils in an alum bath to affix “shadows” of the geometric shapes on both sides.

What can these connections tell us about the world today?

These two collaborative objects show a thirst for shared knowledge. The commercial potential of the “silhouette” papers in particular showed the desirability of items that were unobtainable in sixteenth-century Europe. But since the designs were made on European paper (with an angel watermark dating to the 1580s), these appear to have been reciprocal exchanges. While the Newberry example only contains lines of text, mainly in Latin, other albums like this that also included marbled papers were used as a basis for highly illuminated and written-in autograph albums, such as one owned by a Viennese diplomat from 1587-1612, now at the Getty Research Institute.

Why do you think preserving the past is important?

Just as learning additional languages can open up your world without traveling internationally, being able to recognize kindred spirits and cultural similarities across time through books and art is absolutely vital for our future.

What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you and what role can curators play in its development?

Manuscript collections in the United States are often Eurocentric, and sometimes the Islamic materials in them are simply unknown or under-described. Efforts to create an updated, digital union catalog like the Digital Scriptorium, are now making greater efforts to include non-Western material, and it is very important work.

For more information check out

Suzanne Karr Schmidt

Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Newberry Library

@drkarrschmidt (Twitter)

@ladydisdaine (Instagram)

@NewberryLibrary (Twitter and Instagram)

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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