The Huntington’s entry gardens | Photo by Martha Benedict

It’s not hard to fill a day spent at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. In fact, you could probably spend a week roaming the grounds and still leave corners of the galleries and gardens undiscovered. And in September, as The Huntington blows out the candles on its 100th birthday, a full year of special celebrations will kick-off.

An exhibition called “Nineteen Nineteen” will bring together nearly 300 objects from the institution’s collection to examine the Huntington’s founding in the tumultuous year of 1919.

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A new initiative called The President’s Series will debut in November and feature conversations with The Library Book scribe Susan Orlean, and Viet Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer. For the first time in 50 years, The Huntington will enter a float in the Rose Parade, and in the spring of 2020, eight acres of new features in the Huntington’s Chinese Garden will open to the public.

It’s a centennial celebration that Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence hopes will captivate all kinds of visitors. Lawrence became The Huntington’s ninth president just about a year ago, leaving Yonkers, NY, where she helmed Sarah Lawrence College. What convinced her to make the big move west: “The Huntington represents so much of what I hold as core values,” says Lawrence, “a humanistic approach that emphasizes curiosity, empathy, and aesthetic appreciation.”


The Huntington President, Karen R. Lawrence | Photo by Stefan Radtke

We asked her to share some highlights of the year ahead, and to take us back in time to when Henry and Arabella Huntington landed in SoCal.

KMc: The Huntington is so many diverse things; is there a singular mission or objective that binds together its different aspects?

KL: Someone described The Huntington as a feast for “experience omnivores.” I believe there is no place like our institution—three astounding collections of rare books and manuscripts, art, and botanical gardens. We have a public mission that began with Henry Huntington to provide access to our collections “for the benefit of humanity.” Our mission is still to support scholarly and educational use of our collections, but the idea of “education” has broadened to include myriad informal discovery experiences.

KMc: How has The Huntington evolved over the last 100 years—what are some major moments in its history over that time?

KL: At the beginning, a few bold decisions defined the unique shape of The Huntington. Henry’s uncle, Collis, sent him west to help him in his railroad business, and when Henry saw Southern California he fell in love. He bought this property in 1903 and hired William Hertrich to be the landscape gardener. Hertrich’s impact can’t be over-estimated. He astutely led his boss to create both a working farm and an unparalleled botanical collection with specimens from all over the world.


Henry E. Huntington,1907.Photo: Theo C. Marceau, New York City. The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.

After Collis died, Henry courted Arabella, Collis’s widow and a savvy and committed art collector (Henry was already a passionate collector of books). They married in 1913 and six years later signed the trust document donating their estate “for the public good.” In 1928, The Huntington opened to the public.


Arabella D. Huntington,1903. Photo: Felix Nadar, Paris. The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens.

Then between 1988 and 2015, the tenures of two transformative presidents of the institution, Bob Skotheim and Steve Koblik, grew the resources and community support necessary to extend the Huntington’s research and educational mission in ways the Huntingtons themselves could not have anticipated.

In the 1980s, Virginia Steele Scott’s generosity enabled the collection and display of American art. In the late 1990s Peter Paanakker’s gift provided for the planning of the Chinese Garden. With extraordinary support from the Chinese-American communities, The Huntington has almost completed the largest classical Chinese garden outside of China. And Frances Brody’s incredible 2010 gift was the single largest in the history of the institution, aside from Henry and Arabella’s original endowment, enabling growth and much-needed support for the botanical gardens.

Some big moments for our collections in recent years include the 1999 acquisition of the archive of British designer William Morris; the 2006 acquisition of Bern Dibner’s Burndy Library of materials relating to the history of science; and the new acquisition of a 320-year-old magistrate’s house from Japan, which will be transported to the U.S. when its restoration is complete.

KMc: How do you think Henry and Arabella would feel about this evolution?

KL: They intended to give their private treasures to the public, but I don’t think they would ever have imagined how that public, and the communities of Los Angeles and Southern California, would change, or that 750,000 visitors would come annually to experience their collections. Although scholarship has remained at the core of The Huntington mission, the outreach to LA school communities, the diversity of our educational programs, and the number of languages spoken by the visitors who seek us out would surprise them.


The library main exhibition hall at The Huntington | Photo courtesy The Huntington

KMc: What are you most looking forward to during the year-long celebration?

KL: I’m very interested in using the next year of lectures, performances, panels, conversations, and exhibitions to demonstrate the leadership role The Huntington is taking in convening conversations that matter to society today. We are well-known in the academic world for providing incredible collections for scholars to reinterpret history—social, political, literary, and scientific. During the centennial, we also want to invite diverse publics, contemporary artists, and writers to experience the relevance of our rich cultural and natural collections.

KMc: What do you think will help The Huntington stay relevant into the future?

KL: A new strategic priority focuses on providing greater digital access to our collections for scholars, students, and the millions of individuals who are curious about something we offer and want to know more. This is especially important for those who cannot physically visit.

From more about The Huntington and its centennial celebration, visit huntington.org.

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