Members Only: Inside the Smart and Swanky Boston Athenaeum

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Posted May 16, 2013 by Scott Kearnan in Urban Living
5th Floor

In 2013, the phrase “members only” probably brings to mind VIP nightclubs and discount luxury shopping websites. But lo and behold, the Boston Athenaeum on Beacon Hill captures a very different era of exclusivity—one that celebrates enriching the mind more than blinging out the wardrobe.

And frankly, that never goes out of style. The members–only Athenaeum has remained one of the city’s most venerable destinations for over 200 years. One of America’s oldest libraries, it’s also one of its most beautiful—filled not only with rare and historic books but also hundreds of pieces of fine art. Even the gorgeous building itself, designed by architect Edward Clarke Cabot, is a work of art. Yet, despite the Athenaeum’s fame, it often feels like it hides in plain sight—for the uninitiated, anyway. So here’s a look at the library, its collection, and some of the things that make it worth a visit for any true blue Brahmin.

Young Patrons

If a members–only library feels a little too stodgy for your swinging, urbanite self, know this: The Boston Athenaeum offers a Young Patrons program that brings together like-minded culture vultures under 35. The special events include movie nights and the annual “Hops to Wheat Beer Tasting” with local brewers. (In March, the Athenaeum paired Prohibition-era cocktails with a screening of The Great Gatsby.)

Boston Athenaeum 1876

From the exhibition “Brilliant Beginnings.” Enrico Meneghelli (1852—after 1912); Picture Gallery of the Boston Athenaeum, 1876. Collection of the Boston Athenæum, Purchase, 1876. Image provided by Boston Athenaeum

Public Access

Although the Athenaeum is a members–only museum, its first floor and galleries are open to the public. Here, you’ll find rotating exhibitions such as “Brilliant Beginnings,” which currently highlights the role that the Athenaeum played in the early development of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On display are nearly 70 pieces that reflect the partnership between a once–fledgling MFA and the older Athenaeum, which loaned the younger institution pieces for many of its earliest exhibitions. You’ll find elegant American paintings, ornate Chinese vases, and gorgeous Italian textiles.

Private Collection

Even the most ambitious bookworm will find that there’s a lot of ground to cover here. The Athenaeum consists of five floors that hold over half a million volumes. To get your bearings, it’s worth taking a building tour. Orientation tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays at noon will introduce you to the collection. A more comprehensive art and architecture tour, offered at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, is a great way to experience the fine collection of historic paintings and sculpture on display throughout the sprawling space.

Top Books

Ever wonder what books are most in-demand? The Boston Athenaeum released a list of the Top 100 Titles in Circulation for the last decade (well, from 2002 to 2012). Topping the list is Works of Anthony Trollope, the famed Victorian–era English novelist. It’s not exclusively older, highbrow stuff, either. Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi are among the modern picks (and blockbuster movie source material) in the top 100.

Digital Browsing

The Athenaeum certainly celebrates antiquity, but it’s not stuck in the past. The library uses state-of-the-art archiving technology to compile an ever–expanding digital collection—so you can browse its shelves at home, in pajamas. (Sweet.) The wealth of digitized books, documents, and photos includes some quirky but fascinating gems, such as handwritten menus from nineteenth-century Boston restaurants, paper money and postage stamps from the Confederate states, and even book bindings from the personal library of George Washington.

Live Music

Playing music in the middle of a library is usually sufficient cause for shushing and embarrassment—especially if you accidentally yanked your headphones from the jack while listening to artists who got their start on the Disney Channel. But the Athenaeum actually fills its halls with a concert series. The next three performances feature pianist Aaron Jackson playing a variety of classical works.

Meet the Authors

Good news: You finally satisfied your bucket list goal of joining a book club. Bad news: No one in your club reads anything that doesn’t have “Now a Major Motion Picture!” stamped on the cover. Those interested in expanding their horizons will enjoy the Athenaeum’s regular book talks, which are provided by visiting authors and academics on a variety of topics. In May, art historian Kathryn Greenthal will discuss the Shaw Memorial, a tribute to the colonel who commanded the Civil War’s first African American regiment. And in June, architect Gil Schafer will sign his new book The Great American House, and discuss the traditions and philosophies that make a house a home—applicable even if you live in a shoebox-sized studio.

Guided Trips

Vacation days are precious; use them wisely. The Athenaeum organizes overseas trips that let you explore foreign soil with experts who can give real, informative background on the customs, culture and more. (Yes, Wikipedia has its limits.) For instance, coming in September is a 12–day trip to Sicily that includes picturesque coastal drives and exploration of Roman ruins. Trips like this don’t come cheap, but the chance to satisfy wanderlust with minds like these is truly priceless.

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