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Article posted: 3/26/2013 12:05 PM

Arboretum library's display tells a story about the past

Morton Arboretum library displays rare books and objects with tales to tell

These colorful and well-preserved butterflies and moths are part of a collection put together and sold by artist and nature writer Sherman F. Denton.

These colorful and well-preserved butterflies and moths are part of a collection put together and sold by artist and nature writer Sherman F. Denton.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Rita Hassert, collections manager at Sterling Morton Library, shows some of the nature prints done by Alice Thoms Vitale.

Rita Hassert, collections manager at Sterling Morton Library, shows some of the nature prints done by Alice Thoms Vitale.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

This herbal woodblock carved by Pier Andrea Mattioli in 1565 is part of Sterling Morton Library’s “Tales and Treasures” exhibit marking the library’s 50th anniversary.

This herbal woodblock carved by Pier Andrea Mattioli in 1565 is part of Sterling Morton Library's "Tales and Treasures" exhibit marking the library's 50th anniversary.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

The exhibit includes QR codes that patrons can scan into their smartphones for more information on particular items.

The exhibit includes QR codes that patrons can scan into their smartphones for more information on particular items.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Designed by noted Chicago architect Harry Weese, the Sterling Morton Library located in the Morton Arboretum’s administration building includes carved cherry bookcases and, just outside the window, the intimate May T. Watts Reading Garden.

Designed by noted Chicago architect Harry Weese, the Sterling Morton Library located in the Morton Arboretum's administration building includes carved cherry bookcases and, just outside the window, the intimate May T. Watts Reading Garden.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Items on display for the library’s 50th anniversary include this Eskimo bone carving.

Items on display for the library's 50th anniversary include this Eskimo bone carving.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Sarah Clark, public relations specialist for Morton Arboretum, demonstrates how books that are too fragile to be handled can be paged through on a touch screen.

Sarah Clark, public relations specialist for Morton Arboretum, demonstrates how books that are too fragile to be handled can be paged through on a touch screen.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

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The butterfly collection on display at the Morton Arboretum's Sterling Morton Library is more than 100 years old and, by itself, makes a trip to see the library's new "Tales and Treasures" exhibit worthwhile.

Put together by artist and nature writer Sherman F. Denton, the colorful moths and butterflies are well-preserved thanks to a mounting technique Denton developed.

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If you go

What: "Tales and Treasures" exhibit

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday through December 2013

Where: Sterling Morton Library in the administration building of The Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle

Cost: Free with arboretum admission: $12 adults 18-64 ($8 Wednesdays), $11 seniors 65 and older ($7 Wednesdays), $9 children 2-17 ($6 Wednesdays), free for members and children under 2

Info: (630) 719-2430

"It's like plaster casting so they look so much more natural," said Rita Hassert, library collections manager, who explained that items Denton and his father collected from the natural world became a means of family income. "They were very sought after collections," she said.

The butterfly collection was donated to the arboretum in 1954 by a woman who purchased it in London in 1900. But the century-old butterflies and moths are only one of 50 treasures the library has on exhibit through December to celebrate its half-century anniversary.

Among the unique items, visitors will find an Eskimo bone carving, seed catalogs from the 1800s, and a 1481 Roman encyclopedia written by Pliny the Elder.

Estimating that the library has more than 100,000 items in its special collections, Hassert said narrowing down the choices for what to put in the exhibit was difficult.

"The things are really remarkable," she said. "There are so many different facets of this exhibit you can dive into."

The exhibit promotes diving in by encouraging viewers to do more than look. Visitors can go on a scavenger hunt to find items on display, scan in QR codes to learn more about specific objects, try their hand at stipple art, and share their thoughts on what they imagine a library will be 50 years from now.

"The whole point is to be very interactive," said Sarah Clark, public relations specialist for the arboretum.

The library is named after Sterling Morton, the son of arboretum founder Joy Morton. Following Sterling's death in 1961, his wife, Preston, commissioned the library in his memory in 1963 and Sterling's daughter, Suzette Morton Davidson, added to its collections.

The Morton family had trees as part of its heritage. Joy Morton's father, J. Sterling Morton, started Arbor Day in 1872 and on exhibit is a 1932 stamp marking the 60th anniversary of Arbor Day.

Joy Morton founded the arboretum in 1922 after a highly successful career running the Morton Salt company and traveled widely in his later years. The exhibit includes both an early Morton Salt container with its famous little umbrella girl logo and the painting of a building Joy Morton helped fund to renovate in China's Forbidden City.

Well-known naturalist, illustrator and writer May Theilgaard Watts started the arboretum's education program. Visitors can see a 1943 map she drew of the arboretum, admire pottery she fashioned, and virtually page through a sketchbook she made of the changing landscape as she rode the train from Aurora to San Francisco in 1962.

"I honestly feel like I'm on the train," Hassert said.

Another book on display -- "A Curious Herbal" published by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1737 -- has a curious history of its own. Blackwell, an artist, wrote and illustrated the book on the medicinal uses of herbs to get her husband out of debtors prison in London. Publishing the book in a weekly series over three years, Blackwell won her husband's freedom. In an unhappy footnote not included in the exhibit, her husband later became involved in court intrigue in Sweden and was beheaded. But her book with its hand-painted illustrations lives on.

"It is one of the earliest herbals published by a woman," Hassert said.

By the mid-1800s, botany had become so fashionable that "Botany for Ladies" was published. For young couples living in a much stricter time, botany might have carried interest beyond the study of plants, Hassert said.

"This was a time you could go out walking with a gentleman if you were collecting plants," she said.

Other treasures include Carl Linnaeus' 1753 "Species Plantarum," beginning the classification of plants used today; a tiny book containing flowers and plants that have appeared on U.S. postage stamps; and copies of Curtis's Botanical Magazine. the longest-running botanical magazine, with the library's collection dating from 1793.

In coming weeks, the exhibit will be extended outside where visitors will be able to scan QR codes on the arboretum grounds to see a photo of what the same scene looked like 50 years ago and may be able to hear an audio to go with it, Hassert said.

The exhibit was created with the collaborative effort of arboretum staff from several departments and is engaging visitors, she said.

"I love the way everyone is gravitating toward it and is excited about it," she said.

More information on items in the exhibit can be found in Sterling Morton Library. Library hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call (630) 719-2430.

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