Any curious person knows the Web is a vast and rich resource that rewards those who know how to mine it well. This past weekend while reading the New York Times article "If This Door Could Talk" (New York Times Book Review, September 4, 2011), I learned of the wonderful interactive online exhibition, "The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia 1920-1925", created by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. My curiosity piqued, I went in search.
The subject of the virtual exhibition — a narrow, blue-over-red painted pine door bearing the signatures of 242 artists, writers, publishers, and other visitors to the Frank Shay Bookshop that operated from late 1920 until the summer of 1924 in the Greenwich Village section of New York City — has been in the center's collections for more than 50 years but it remained an artifact behind closed doors, as it were, until technology advanced enough to make this virtual exhibition possible.
Before being claimed by Shay from a building undergoing demolition on Christopher Street in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, the door was in a flat that once was the home of novelist Floyd Dell (1887-1969). Dell, whose own signature is on the door, described in his 1933 memoir Homecoming how Shay came to possess the door, noting that after salvaging it and hanging it so that it opened into his shop's office, Shay began using the door ". . . as an autograph-'album', on which all the authors who came into his place were asked to write their names...." The connections to Dell, a prominent literary figure; to Shay, whose bookshop across the street from the flat was a lively gathering place for all things literary and cultural; and to the artists, writers, publishers, and customers whose names were signed on the door — names that include Thomas Seltzer, American publish of D.H. Lawrence; novelists Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser, poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, and George and Ira Gershwin friend Emily Strunsky — are what make this single artifact of importance to the literary, cultural, and social history of The Village from 1920 to 1925.
The online exhibit provides a significant amount of interesting, frequently fascinating information about the door itself, the Shay Bookshop, Greenwich Village as it existed in the early 1920s, and the lives, careers, and relationships of the Bohemians who frequented The Village. Each of the featured sections allows interaction. For example, you can flip the door to see and read its back side, select a single panel to identify individual signatures in close-up views, or see at once all the creative and professional connections among the signatures. The center has created for the latter 53 connections linking various signatures that have been grouped into five broad categories (Writing, Books, Performance, Visual Arts, Social Worlds) that are further broken down to illustrate associations and interests. For good measure, the exhibition's creators also have included a Learn More section that is worth browsing. The information is provided in manageable chunks and the navigation is intuitive. There is so much information available on the site (overviews, capsule descriptions, slideshows, biographical sketches, and more than 200 related artifacts to explore, as well as many hundreds of other connections brought together in a single place through linkages to separate physical collections at the center) that one cannot do justice to the exhibition in a single virtual visit.
The Ransom Center also has mounted a physical exhibition, on view through January 22, 2012, comprising four parts: Reconstructing the Bookshop, which introduces Shay's story and business and The Village in which he operated; Christopher Morley, which displays artifacts from the shop patron and writer that support the shop's history; Deciphering the Door, which explains how curators were able to identify the majority of the 240 signatures; and Autograph Communities, which highlights facts about some of the most well-known names on the door. Every artifact is associated with signatures from the doors.
Facing the unlikelihood of getting to Texas to see the physical exhibition, I'm delighted to be able to explore the door and its illustrious history and associations online. Having made several visits there since last weekend, I intend to go back and bone up on the signatures of the Bohemians known and unknown.
This is a tremendous resource and the Ransom Center is to be applauded for making this content available to anyone anywhere in the world as convenience suits.
Note: If time is limited or you just want to take a quick dip into the Website's offerings, start out with the New York Times article hyperlinked above and then jump to the slideshow. Together, these will give you a good perspective on the virtual site.