Don Draper's suit and Gutenberg Bibles - American museums get new donations

Two donations - one of pop culture, the other with more historical significance - will enrich museum-goers' experience in the US

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 5:11pm

The role of museums in the history of mankind cannot be underestimated. Because of museums, we see treasured artefacts, whether they are linked to milestones in history or popular culture, which give us the flavour of what life was like at any point in time. An appreciation of the past, as it were.

It makes two recent donations in the US all the more notable.

In one, Don Draper is headed for the Smithsonian. The grey suit and fedora worn by actor Jon Hamm as the enigmatic lead in the television series Mad Men will join the permanent collection at the Washington museum in a ceremony later this month to join such items as Archie Bunker's armchair (from All in the Family) and the Fonz's leather jacket (from Happy Days).

Another donation with more historical significance is going to Princeton University in New Jersey, which will receive six 15th-century prints of the Bible, donated by a wealthy benefactor and bibliophile as part of a "treasure house" of rare books.

That donation will have the highest value in the Ivy League school's history.

The Gutenberg Bible editions, printed in 1455, are exceedingly rare and beautifully illuminated, and represent the first substantial edition of books printed by movable metal type. The process revolutionised the distribution of knowledge throughout Europe. Princeton is deciding whether to make the Gutenberg Bibles digital.

The ceremony for the Mad Men donation is one of a number of exhibitions, panel conversations and screenings planned at major cultural institutions in New York, Los Angeles and Washington in the run-up to the show's final seven episodes, which begin airing in the US in the first week of April. The show began in 2007 and will end with the 85th episode.

The Smithsonian will also receive other memorabilia from the show, including Don's no doubt well-worn bar cart, and the original script for the memorable season one finale, The Wheel, complete with an ending that was never filmed.

"We are proud and a little overwhelmed by the interest and enthusiasm from these prestigious cultural organisations, and grateful for the opportunity it's created for us to give back to our amazing fans who have been there from the beginning," Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner says.

A number of events are also planned for Mad Men's home of New York City. An exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image running from March 14 to June 14 will feature costumes, sets and props as well as Weiner's personal notes and research material.

Also in the works at the Museum of the Moving Image is a public conversation with Weiner and Required Viewing, Mad Men's Movie Influences, a series of 10 films selected by the show runner including Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Arthur Hiller's The Americanisation of Emily and Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes. It runs from March 14 to April 26.

There is also a two-day film festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 22 and 23.

In Manhattan, the Film Society of Lincoln Centre will host a conversation with Weiner and cast members Hamm, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser on March 21.

The donation to Princeton is a trove of books, manuscripts and music worth about US$300 million. It comes from the estate of William Scheide, who died in November aged 100. Scheide had actually moved his family's collection to the university in 1959 from the family home in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the books were collected over three generations, says Princeton.

The Scheide Library is the richest collection anywhere of the first documents printed in 15th-century Europe

Other volumes in the collection include the first printed edition of the Declaration of Independence, a handwritten speech about slavery by Abraham Lincoln, musical sketchbooks, and manuscripts of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner, as well as all 47 volumes of music produced by Bach.

The collection also contains Shakespeare's first, second, third and fourth folios. Shakespeare's first folio, for example, was the first book of plays published in a format generally reserved for literature. The first folio is sometimes called "incomparably the most important work in the English language", says the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Princeton history professor and Renaissance Europe specialist Anthony Grafton called the Scheide collection a "treasure house" for researchers and students.

"At its core, the Scheide Library is the richest collection anywhere of the first documents printed in 15th-century Europe," Grafton says. "But its magnificent books and manuscripts illuminate many areas, from the printing of the Bible to the ways in which the greatest composers created their music."

Scheide's grandfather began collecting the artefacts after making his fortune in the Pennsylvania oil boom. He retired aged 42. His son John was a Princeton alumnus.

William Scheide lived in a room above the family library, which was built to house the already outstanding collection, according to an obituary in The New York Times. He continued building the collection nearly until his death, often with the advice of his wife, Judy McCartin Scheide.

"This collection is the fulfilment of the dreams of three generations of Scheide book men," McCartin Scheide says.

"Having it reside permanently at Princeton is a testament to the joy Bill took in sharing the books, papers, manuscripts, letters, music and posters with others. Those were some of his happiest times. He loved showing people - especially young people who had never seen anything like this before - the collection, letting them touch the books and experience what he called 'the wow factor'."

Scheide earned a master's degree in music from Columbia University after studying history at Princeton. He founded the Bach Aria Group, a classical music ensemble dedicated to playing Bach's lesser-known works, some of which were in his collection.

Scheide also financed civil rights work, funding the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People's fight in the legal battle that led the US Supreme Court to declare segregation in schools unconstitutional.

Los Angeles Times, The Guardian