Let There Be Light

After a $14 million facelift, UT's Ransom Center is open -- really open

Ransom Center southeast corner interior
Ransom Center southeast corner interior

The new front corners of the Ransom Center exterior are impressive enough for what they are. Rising 30 feet high, like giant bookends, are panels covered with images from literature, theatre, photography, and film: a life-size Alice, straight from the pages of Lewis Carroll's book; a sequence of Eadweard Muybridge photographs depicting the second-by-second motion of a horse at full gallop; Pablo Picasso's eyes, staring with a mesmerist's intensity, as photographed by David Douglas Duncan; a shot of Elizabeth Taylor; a sleek car of the future imagined by designer Norman Bel Geddes; a Depression-era woman of constant sorrow, photographed by Walker Evans -- dozens of images, all representing cultural treasures that dwell inside this building, the vast archive that is the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.

But here's the thing: These corners, that cover so much of the façade of this edifice, they're glass. They are transparent. Light outside the building shines through them, illuminating the interior. This isn't merely an architectural flourish designed to give a 30-year-old facility a rejuvenated profile. This new openness represents a major philosophic shift for the institution housed within it, a sea change in the HRC's relationship with the public. What had been a temple to culture closed to all but the initiated, the scholar-monks worthy to view and handle its historic relics, has thrown wide its doors and is now welcoming all believers, everyone with an interest in the arts and humanities. It's a new age for Harry Ransom's dream.

Leatherface mask,  <i>The Texas Chainsaw Massacre</i>
Leatherface mask, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Now, back in 1956, when Ransom told the Philosophical Society of Texas about his idea for establishing in the Lone Star State "a center of cultural compass" that would rival the great libraries of the world, there was no building at 21st and Guadalupe, no research center, no thing to research -- no Gutenberg Bible, no first photograph, no manuscripts or artwork or anything for which the HRC is now famed. But the powers that be at the University of Texas saw value in Ransom's dream and began funneling him the money -- much of it on the sly -- to build a literary collection of the first water. In eight years, Ransom acquired an impressive array of manuscripts and typescripts, including Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. In this first age of the Humanities Research Center, the mission was simply "collect." Dubbed "the Great Acquisitor," Ransom was intent on gathering in Austin as much as he could of the world's cultural materials -- which he considered to be not just published works but drafts, manuscripts, page proofs, letters, contracts, and doodles, as well as like work in music, art, photography, and film.

In another eight years, Ransom had a building for his rapidly growing collection, the seven-story edifice that still stands on the southwest corner of the Forty Acres. Erected as it was in a time of campus unrest, this physical manifestation of the HRC was more about security for its contents than reflecting their aesthetic quality. Next to no windows. Minimal ornamentation. Small entrance. Just a big gray block. Not especially inviting, but then was that the point? It was, after all, in its creator's vision, a research center -- a destination for scholars to pore over carefully managed artifacts.

Any intent to showcase the center's collections in the building that was their home was quickly co-opted by the needs of another collection -- the accumulation of 20th-century art amassed by author James Michener and his wife Mari -- which was given to the university in 1971 with the stipulation that it be put on display quickly. As a result, the first two floors of the HRC then became galleries for UT's art museum. Exhibitions organized by the Ransom Center might be displayed on the second floor, but more often, they were relegated to the Leeds Gallery, on the fourth floor of the undergraduate library several buildings away. If it were possible for an exhibition space to be even less inviting to the public than the HRC itself -- which, in addition to being large and imposing, had no on-site parking -- the landlocked-even-deeper-in-campus Leeds Gallery was it.

<i>St. Paul's Cathedral, spiral staircase looking down, </i>by Helmut Gernsheim, 1939
St. Paul's Cathedral, spiral staircase looking down, by Helmut Gernsheim, 1939

This "living arrangement" stood for more than a quarter of a century, but then came the late 1990s and the art museum's own Ransom-like expansion. Substantial additions to its print collection and contemporary Latin American art holdings, and its acquisition of the Suida-Manning Collection of Old Master Paintings and Drawings left the museum like a teen after a summer growth spurt, his jeans riding 3 inches above the ankle; it had seriously outgrown its modest galleries in the Art Building and HRC, and a new museum facility was called for. Not a little blood has been shed on the way to constructing that facility -- now named the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art -- but that's a story for another time. Suffice to say that the decision to build the new museum opened the door, so to speak, for the HRC to reinvent itself.

By now, directorship of the center, renamed for "the Great Acquisitor" in 1983, has passed into the hands of Joyce scholar Thomas Staley, who was presiding over a collection of 1 million rare books, more than 40 million manuscripts, 5 million photographs, and 100,000 works of art and design. The bottom two floors of the building were being freed for the HRC. What to do? Well, what about giving the public more access to this astonishing accumulation of treasures? If the first two ages of the HRC could be characterized by the directives "collect" and "preserve," then the watchword of the center's third age would be "share."

A plan was developed to overhaul the base of the HRC with visitors in mind. Functions that had been located in the upper levels of the temple -- lectures and readings in the fourth-floor classroom, study of archived material in the fifth-floor reading room -- would be brought down to earth, as it were, with ground-level galleries for items from the center's collections, as well as permanent displays for the Gutenberg Bible and the world's first photograph, and a theatre for readings, film screenings, and dramatic performances; and on the second floor, a reading room and viewing room for art and photography. Lake/Flato, the San Antonio design firm responsible for Austin Lyric Opera's headquarters and the renovation of the Austin Museum of Art's Laguna Gloria home, was engaged as project architect.

<i>Automobile model</i>, c. 1939, by Norman Bel Geddes
Automobile model, c. 1939, by Norman Bel Geddes

As of May 13, after 20 months and $14.5 million of jackhammering, sawing, wiring, and polishing, the newly open Harry Ransom Center is open for general inspection. And what lies beyond its doors -- framed by more glass, here etched with signatures by Ransom Center collection creators, from Edgar Allan Poe to T.E. Lawrence to John Graves -- is as radically different in its way as the glass panels. Walls no longer hem in the lobby, separating it from the galleries. Instead, the visitor is greeted by unbroken space that stretches to the gallery's back wall. To the left is a passage leading to the staircase that rises to the second floor next to the southeast glass panels. To the right is a hall to the new 129-seat Charles Nelson Prothro Theater (a theatre, I must acknowledge, that I helped break in as a hired performer for a Ransom Center gala), which is located next to the northeast glass panels. From both these wings, the light of day feeds into the lobby, where it is echoed in the pale warmth of pecan-wood walls. The wide-open spaces of the galleries pull you forward toward them. Directly in your path, however, is an oval installation of dark wood; it is the new home for that prized possession of the center (and UT, for that matter), the Gutenberg Bible. Just past it and to the right is the less obtrusive small metal room where one may see the world's first photograph.

Beyond these permanent displays and down some steps lies the revitalized center's inaugural exhibition, "In a New Light," bringing out of the shadows some of the collection's holdings. At some 300 items, the exhibition shows off barely a fraction of a fraction of what the HRC possesses. Still, this minuscule sampling of the archive's jewels is more than enough to dazzle a lover of creative pursuits. Here's a draft of A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, in Arthur Conan Doyle's own hand, and you're able to study his penmanship -- careful, petite, almost draftsmanlike -- and puzzle over his decision to strike through this word in favor of that one. There's a drawing by Jean Cocteau of Barbette, the cross-dressing man on the flying trapeze who charmed Paris in the 1920s, and you can study the face for signs of the male behind the female or traces of his/her Round Rock origins. Here's a Deco-style radio in fire-engine red, further testimony to the elegant genius of Norman Bel Geddes design. (Remember that futuristic roadster on the glass panel?) There's the Yiddish typewriter that Isaac Bashevis Singer used to write his Nobel Prize-winning stories and that, its owner claims, had a mind of its own. The items range from the divine -- a first edition of Dante's Divine Comedy -- to the perverse -- Leatherface's mask from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the whimsical -- Al Hirschfeld's caricature of Ernest Hemingway reading James Joyce's Ulysses -- to the arresting -- Helmut Gernsheim's photo that turns a staircase in St. Paul's Cathedral into a nautilus shell.

Each of the three sections of "In a New Light" -- literature, visual art, and photography -- has its own items that will provoke fascination, intrigue, or prolonged study in the individual viewer. That by itself is cause to pay the HRC a visit today. But when the exhibition is taken as a whole, its display of the breadth of human creativity, of the manifold ways in which artists have found to express themselves in age after age, make its viewing all but compulsory. Here are records of our deep impulse to make things, to construct reflections of our experience and realize that which exists only in our imagination. Here are the records of that impulse from a hundred different places in a different hundred times, clustered together, like stars in the night sky. Here they are, being shared with us, that we might be drawn closer to their light and the wonder they inspire.

To leave, you must pass the Gutenberg enclosure again, and it may put you in mind of a passage from the book therein, in which the very first creator was about his work on the very first day. He wanted light. "And there was light," Genesis tells us. And the creator saw the light, and "it was good." Amen. end story

"In a New Light" continues through Sept. 14 at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, 21st and Guadalupe. For more information, call 471-8944 or visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle