Monday, March 06, 2006

Karpeles Manuscript Museums

Karpeles Manuscript Museums

David Karpeles, a Santa Barbara, Calif., native who opened his first museum in his hometown 22 years ago, settled on Shreveport to round out the locations of his eight other museums, found around the country in smaller cities where he believes the manuscripts would make a large splash as a cultural offering.
“One important thing you learn is that manuscripts are written by people, and one individual person can have an effect on the course of history,” said Marsha Karpeles, David Karpeles’ wife who is executive director of the nine museums.
The Karpeles collection is the largest private holding of important original manuscripts and documents and includes the original draft of the Bill of Rights, writings by Einstein on his theory of relativity and a portion of the original manuscript of the dictionary created by Noah Webster.

Get it documented

Sometime in the early 1970s, David Karpeles, a former math professor who was beginning to make his fortune in real estate in Santa Barbara, Calif., took his family for a day's excursion at the Huntington Museum, where Thomas Gainesborough's famous portrait,The Blue Boy, was on exhibit.

Karpeles liked the painting; but what fascinated him was the library's manuscript room, where he found such items as a signed pass giving Abraham Lincoln's bodyguard the night off so Lincoln could go to the theater.

What surprised Karpeles was that documents that seemed historically significant, that bore the signatures of men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were in a private collection, not the National Archives (when he asked about that, Karpeles was told that the National Archives hadn't existed until 1934).

Karpeles was also fascinated by the way his children reacted to the manuscripts. They had ignored the paintings in the museum but seeing the signatures of Washington and Jefferson seemed to intrigue them.

Karpeles, who had collected stamps and coins during his Minnesota boyhood, began to check the catalogs of Sotheby's and Christy's, the two largest firms handling art auctions, in search of manuscripts he might buy. But it was not until 1978 that he bought his first, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln. He paid $40,000 for it at auction and was delighted with the bargain. "To me it was worth millions," Karpeles said during a visit to Jacksonville last weekend.

He was in town for the opening of Sprinkles' When I Grow Up, an interactive children's museum on the ground floor of the building which houses his Jacksonville Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum.

Once Karpeles began collecting manuscripts, he began accumulating them rapidly. In those days, Karpeles said, most manuscripts were owned by universities, which regularly put them up for sale to aid in fund-raising.

Karpeles jumped into the market and used a simple bidding strategy: He presumed he was bidding against experts, who knew how much was appropriate to bid on any item. He simply kept bidding until the experts quit.

That strategy eventually stopped working for two reasons. One was that "this crazy nut" began to corner the market on manuscripts, maker them a much scarcer, more prized commodity. (He was the crazy nut.) The other reason was that a couple of other amateurs, Malcolm Forbes and Ross Perot, got involved, so it was no longer a sure thing that he was bidding against experts who knew when to stop bidding.

But in the interim, Karpeles had accumulated a collection that now numbers more than 1 million documents.

Realizing that what he liked was not just collecting documents, but sharing them with other people as well, Karpeles opened his first museum in 1983 near his home in Montecito, Calif. A second Karpeles opened in New York City and remained on Central Park for several years. But attendance was so poor there Karpeles decided to close that museum and look for locations that weren't already teeming with cultural life.

When his son-in-law and daughter, Bob and Cheryl Alleman, were offered a choice of cities to locate (Bob Alleman is a sales representative for the company that manufactures Gore-Tex), they chose Jacksonville partly because it seemed a good spot for a Karpeles museum.

It helped that they found a wonderfully, architecturally appealing building, a former church built in Greek revival style, on First Street in Springfield, between Boulevard and Laura Street about a block and a half from Florida Community College at Jacksonville Downtown Campus. "He falls in love with a building first," Cheryl Alleman said of her father. The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum opened here in 1992.

Using a computer to keep track of the documents, which are filed in a climate controlled, steel-lined room, Karpeles personally organizes four manuscript exhibits a year for each of his seven manuscript libraries (the others are in Santa Barbara; Tacoma, Wash.; Duluth, Minn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Charleston, S.C.).

The Jacksonville Karpeles includes 26 display cases for housing the exhibits. Currently, the cases are filled with documents relating to medical history, including one drawn up by Benjamin Franklin, incorporating America's first hospital, one from Clara Barton announcing the formation of the Red Cross, and documents signed by such medical pioneers as William Harvey, Francis Crick, Louis Pasteur and Edward Jenner.

Almost all the documents in each exhibit are originals. Occasionally photocopies are used, usually because the originals are too fragile to travel. The Jacksonville Karpeles also maintains a collection of photocopies, either to fill out exhibits that don't fill all 26 display cases or to circulate to schools that want them.

The museum also houses rotating art exhibits, about six a year. The current exhibit, which will continue through the end of February, features assemblages and prints by Jim Smith, who teaches art at The Bolles School.

There is no admission charge to the Karpeles, which is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Last year, an estimated 50,000 people either visited the museum or were involved in one of its community outreach programs.

Marsha Karpeles, who married her husband when she was a freshman at the University of Minnesota and he was a young math professor, said operating the free museums is an outgrowth of the idealism they both absorbed growing up in Minnesota. "It's our chance to do public service, our chance to give it back," said Marsha Karpeles, who has gone back to college to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in creative writing. "Some people travel the world; some people collect jewelry. This is what we do."

This story can be found on at
The Florida Times-Union