Some Books Make Us Free

An Exhibition of Artistic Interpretation of Rare Books at the Harrison Center

Alexandra Hudson

We are living through what feels like an era of unprecedented division in our nation. We also have an unprecedented opportunity. 

The coronavirus crisis divided us physically. The protests against deep racial injustices in our nation’s past and present have divided us further politically. All have elevated deep inequalities and exacerbated existing tensions to a breaking point. 

That is why now, more than ever, we need a conversation about citizenship and American identity that simultaneously confronts the shortcomings of our past while reviving the aspirations of our future.  We urgently need a discussion of our duties to one another as citizens in our community, our state, and our nation.  

This October, we are building on the success of the Harrison’s first rare books exhibit that took place in July 2019. That inaugural exhibition brought to life the themes of rare, original works of history and political philosophy through art. For instance, we paired an original printing of the Gettysburg Address with an artist’s depiction of young Abraham Lincoln, who spent part of his childhood in Indiana.  Another artist paired a portrait of Madam C.J. Walker—the first female millionaire who was dedicated to civil rights and empowering women economically—with an original copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the Rights of Women, one of the first philosophical arguments for women’s social and political equality. In addition, we hosted a series of events with students, the Indianapolis community, and public leaders to further bring to life the themes of the art and books. 

This year, we have expanded our partnerships to include the Indiana Historical Society, the Indiana Bar Foundation, and others to reach more people and new audiences with our programming. We will be entering a highly divisive presidential election, so there will be urgency for initiatives that counteract the forces that seek to tear our nation apart. 

As such, and in light of recent events, the theme of this year’s exhibit will focus on an essential aspect of citizenship in a democracy: political dissent. Over the last few months, we have seen tens of thousands of people across the country exercising their right to criticize what they see as the weaknesses of our country and demand change. We have seen this through peaceful assembly, petition, and protest. Many do this because they love America and want to see it do better.

But how much more effective can these protests be when informed by how our system of government and our institutions work? 

In October, we will use art to bring life to ideas around the mechanics and philosophy of our system of government. We created a quiz that allows people to interact with the content and ideas of the US naturalization civics test. We are pairing protestor art with rare books to show how the ethos of the protests and political dissent are manifestations of classical democratic ideas. This includes art that recognizes achievements and learning from mistakes to the end of better living up to our founding ideals. 

We will offer visitors to the exhibit a chance to interact with rare books from which the commissioned art will be inspired: an 18th-century edition of the Magna Carta, an early edition of Samuel Johnson’s famous English Dictionary, the first edition of Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Social Contract, a first edition of Henry David Thoreau’s work, and an original, first edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and much more! Covid safety precautions will be followed. 

Our confirmed partners are the Harrison Center, The Sagamore Institute, The Remnant Trust, The Indiana Historical Society, Women4Change, and the Indiana Bar Foundation—all leaders in the sphere of public civics education. I hope you’ll consider partnering with us to be a leader in this important conversation across the state. 

Thank you for joining us as we redefine and ignite long-overdue conversations about differing American experiences, and what we have in common as citizens in these United States.

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