Exhibit offers unique opportunity to experience history
by Steve Johnson
ATCHISON — If you went to see the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Independence in a museum, you would view them behind glass in a specially designed exhibit.
Now, imagine that the display cases are open and you can actually pick up an 800-year-old handwritten Bible, feel the parchment and turn the pages. And the price of admission is nothing more than a drive to Atchison.
The spectacular “Wisdom of the Ages” exhibition at Benedictine College provides just such an opportunity. Included in the collection are a page from one of the first finished copies of the Gutenberg Bible from 1455, a copy of the Magna Carta from 1576, a handwritten manuscript of the works of Thomas Aquinas from 1475, the first public printing of the Emancipation Proclamation from The New York Times in 1862, and a first edition of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” from early 1776.
These and 35 other precious documents will be on display inside the Laughlin Rotunda in the Ferrell Academic Center on Benedictine’s campus from Oct. 13 – 19 and again from Nov. 8 – 14. The exhibit is free and open to the public from 4 – 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Sundays.
“It is exciting to have materials of this caliber on our campus,” said Benedictine College president Stephen D. Minnis. “This exhibit includes 40 key documents expressing ideas that truly shaped the world.”
Nicholas Callaghan, a sophomore at Benedictine College, put it in perspective from the standpoint of the liberal arts focus of the college.
“How often do people get to touch a copy of the Magna Carta or a Vulgate Bible from centuries ago?” he asked. “For a liberal arts college like Benedictine, this collection represents everything we stand for. It brings us back to our roots, putting us in touch, quite literally, with many of the documents we study over the course of our four years at Benedictine.”
The exhibit was made possible by a donation from the Haverty Family Foundation and support from the Benedictine College Honors Program. It is comprised of documents and manuscripts from The Remnant Trust, Inc. The collection encompasses four major strands of intellectual history:
1. The Two Wings of the Human Spirit: Faith and Reason in Dialogue through the Ages
This includes items like a 1553 letter from Martin Luther regarding the Reformation, the Decrees of the Council of Trent from 1670, an illustrated manuscript Bible from 1225, and a handwritten paper in Persian from 1250.
2. Unlocking the Mysteries of Nature: The Emergence of a Scientific Worldview
Because the printing press helped spread the scientific revolution, this grouping includes a page from the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible from 1455. It also holds a first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” from 1617, a rare issue of Galileo’s proof of the Copernican system from 1710, and a printing of Isaac Newton’s theories from 1714.
3. An Experiment in Liberty: America and the Heritage of the West
An exciting collection of early American documents, this section includes one of the rarest printings of the Declaration of Independence in a journal from 1778; a first edition of “Common Sense,” the famous political pamphlet by Thomas Paine, from 1776; and the journal of the Acts of the First Congress of the United States from 1789, which established the Bill of Rights and officially ratified the Constitution and the election of George Washington as the first president.
4. The Glorious Liberty of the Children of God: Human Rights in the Western Tradition
Tracing the development of individual rights, this section includes a first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from 1852; a first printing of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from The New York Times in 1862; and a 1576 printing of the landmark Magna Carta.
“As a secondary education and social science major, this is a fantastic opportunity for me,” said Benedictine senior Claire Willms. “Now I can see — and touch — books I have read in classes for years. The opportunity to have these documents here and to share them with others has reminded me why I love history so much, and why I want to teach.”
Willms has been trained as a docent for the exhibit, which has given her an even closer connection to the items on display.
“My favorite section of the collection here at BC is the Faith and Reason case, Two Wings of the Human Spirit,” she said. “There is so much depth in that one case: six languages, works that span hundreds of years of world history from different faiths (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) and genres from Greek tragedy to theology.”
Another student docent, Tia Westhoff, said she felt the page from the Guttenberg Bible was probably the most significant piece in the exhibit because of the importance of the printing press in the spread of knowledge. But her favorite section was also Two Wings of the Human Spirit.
“These documents of theology and philosophy formed the development of the West as we know it by simultaneously reaching the mind and the heart,” she said.
Westhoff has the interesting perspective of having been around the major museums of the Smithsonian Institution over the summer.
“I worked in D.C. this past summer and there was no way anyone there was going to let you within six feet of a rare document,” she said. “Here we get to turn the pages and read for ourselves.”
As a docent, Westhoff has been pleased to see the tremendous reaction to the exhibit.
“The reaction to the exhibit has been priceless,” she said. “Students, faculty, members of the community, parents, supporters of the college, and strangers have been flocking to the documents to learn something new. There is no price tag you can put on this kind of enthusiasm for knowledge.”