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The Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library's Treasures

Things to do New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building , Midtown West Until Wednesday December 31 2025
NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Max Touhey / NYPL

Time Out says

Hundreds of items have been pulled from the New York Public Library's expansive and centuries-spanning archive to be put on display—many of them for the first time—in a permanent exhibition called "The Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures."

Inside the NYPL's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and its beautiful Gottesman Hall, are more than 250 unique and rare items culled from its research centers: the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the Library for the Performing Arts and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The exhibit, which opens to the public on Friday, September 24, spans 4,000 years of history and includes a wide range of history-making pieces, including the only surviving letter from Christoper Columbus announcing his "discovery" of the Americas to King Ferdinand’s court and the first Gutenberg Bible brought over to the Americas.

We visited the stunning collection this week to find the top 10 must-see items at the NYPL Treasures exhibit so when you go, you can make sure to see them for yourself:

1. Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Max Touhey / NYPL

Only six manuscript versions of the Declaration of Independence are known to survive in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson made this copy for a friend shortly after the July 4th, 1776, ratification of the Declaration, which announced to the world the American colonies’ political separation from Great Britain. He underlined words that he ended up taking out of the final document. Among the rejected passages, present here: a passionate condemnation of African chattel slavery and the slave trade, the perpetuation of which Jefferson blames on King George III. Jefferson’s antislavery sentiments were not insincere, but how he could hold them, as an enslaver himself, remains a conundrum.

2. Manuscript draft fragment of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, demanded women’s equality based on what they have in common with men. There is an early edition and a draft fragment in her handwriting, which is the only one known to survive, she takes to task both the women who indulge in extravagant fashions and the men who mock them.

3. The stuffed animals that belonged to the real-life Christopher Robin and inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh stories

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

The original stuffed animals that inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are right here in NYC. They belonged to Christopher Robin Milne, who received a teddy bear purchased from Harrods department store in London in 1921. Pooh is surrounded by his pals Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger (Roo was eventually lost in an apple orchard.) They were brought to the U.S. in 1947 and kept by Milne’s American publisher, E.P. Dutton, until 1987, when they were donated to the Library.

4. Maquette of "Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp)" by Augusta Savage

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

This incredible plaster sculpture was designed for the 1939 World's Fair by Augusta Savage, a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Through the work, she honored composer, activist, lawyer and fellow Floridian James Weldon Johnson: “I have taken for my theme the national Negro anthem,” wrote Savage. “It is a poem written by the late James Weldon Johnson, and set to the music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson." The sculpture was one of the most popular at the fair, but it was destroyed because she could not afford to cast it in bronze. This reproduction and others were made and sold as souvenirs.

5. The set model of In The Heights

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

The beloved musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes is represented by Anna Louizos’s set model for the original Off-Broadway production, which shows a dynamic urban streetscape with details informed by her visits with Miranda to his neighborhood, including the George Washington Bridge.

5. The Triumph of Maximilian (Triumphal Arch) by Albrecht Dürer

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

Albrecht Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, commissioned by Emperor Maximilian, is one of the largest prints ever produced. It's made of 200 individual prints and demanded the combined labors of Dürer and a workshop of assistants for more than two years. The library owns two copies, including a rare, but incomplete, first edition. The one shown here is complete and belongs to the third and last edition.

6. Charles Dickens’s desk

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

You can see the actual desk, chair and light that Dickens used when writing Hard Times (1854) and Great Expectations (1860–1861). He also wrote some of his more than 15,000 letters on this writing slope. The chair was used in Dickens’s office at Household Words, the weekly magazine he edited in the 1850s, but was later moved to his home. This ensemble, including the small desk calendar, all came from Gad’s Hill Place, Dickens’s primary residence for the last decade of his life.

7. Costume made and worn by Loie Fuller (1862–1928)

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

This beautiful hand-dyed silk, from 1925, was likely worn in a dance set to Claude DeBussy's "La Mer" by dancer and entrepreneur Loie Fuller, who transformed it under colored lighting. Fuller’s interpretation involved a staircase and yards of silk, making the entire stage move like ocean waves. She was known to manipulate fabric in swirling, undulating patterns, helping to define the modernist aesthetic that inspired artists from sculptor Auguste Rodin to poet W.B. Yeats to the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan. 

8. A Page from a draft of The Novel James Baldwin

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver | © THE ESTATE OF JAMES BALDWIN

From around 1960, this speech by James Baldwin outlines some of his thoughts on the characteristics of the novel as a form and the challenges for the American novelist, but particularly Black writers. The final page suggests Baldwin’s view of the promise the novel holds for African American literature when Black writers—such as Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and Ralph Ellison—write how they see themselves: “a new sense of our identity.”

9. Umbrella belonging to P.L. Travers

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

Take a close look at this umbrella. Remind you of anyone? It belonged to the author of Mary Poppins—Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers. The American editor presented the umbrella to The New York Public Library in May 1972, at the same time that Travers herself donated a small collection of artifacts associated with her well-loved storybook series.  

10. Malcolm X’s briefcase

NYPL treasures exhibit
Photograph: Shaye Weaver

You can see the actual leather and brass briefcase of Malcolm X, who had a famously busy schedule, meeting with activists, religious and community leaders, students, scholars, and everyday people around the world and on the sidewalks and in the shops of Harlem. Much of the Malcolm X Collection documents the substance of those many meetings, conferences, and public presentations, and provides a glimpse of the charisma that drew so many people to him. Yet the collection includes only a handful of Malcolm X’s personal effects. This briefcase is one such rare artifact and a testament to Malcolm X’s tireless work.

It was admittedly difficult to put together a list of just 10 amazing items from this exhibit as there are literally hundreds of items that are so old and so important. Before you go, grab timed tickets in advance at nypl.org/treasures.

The exhibition is expected to be a dynamic experience—new items will be removed and added in over time. Not surprising, when one considers how many gems the New York Public Library has likely acquired over the course of its 126-year history. The new exhibition was made possible through a $12.5 million donation from philanthropist Dr. Leonard Polonsky CBE and curated by a team of research library staff led by Declan Kiely, the Library’s Director of Special Collections and Exhibition.

"To move forward and make real and essential progress as a society, we need to understand what came before us," says Anthony W. Marx, president of The New York Public Library. "We need to learn the stories that have contributed to our collective story, the awe-inspiring, the heartbreaking, the infuriating, the spectacular.

Details

Event website: https://www.nypl.org/
Venue name: New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Address: Fifth Ave
New York
10036
Cross street: at 42nd St
Transport: Subway: B, D, F, M to 42nd St–Bryant Park; 42nd St S, 4, 5, 6, 7 to 42nd St–Grand Central
Price: Free

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