Explore the stunning Boston Athenaeum — plus its rare books and fine art — for free this weekend

The Boston Athenaeum Open House.
Guests at the Boston Athenaeum during a previous Open House. –Lovely Valentine Photo + Film

Guests can examine a 19th-century book bound in human skin and portions of President George Washington’s personal library on Saturday during the Boston Athenaeum’s Fourth Annual Open House.

The free event, which drew 1,200 people last year, allows visitors a rare peek into all five floors of the membership library and fine art museum, said Dawna Burrus, director of annual giving for the Boston Athenaeum. While members have access to the entire library, the public only has access to the first floor unless taking a private tour, she said.

“Once you step through the doors, it’s magnificent,” said Burrus of the Boston Athenaeum, a National Historic Landmark, which opened on Beacon Street in 1849 and was founded in 1807. “It’s a great opportunity to step into a different time, architecturally. Also, it’s a great opportunity to see an art and architectural collection that is rarely seen, unless you’re a member.”


On Saturday, guests will be able to take self-guided tours of the library. Experts will be available to discuss the books, sculptures, and art and to answer questions, and conservators will give demonstrations on refurbishing items and binding old books. There will also be activities for kids in the children’s library.

The second-floor reading room holds more than 500 periodicals, including newspapers, magazines, and journals to which the athenaeum is subscribed. —Ryan Breslin/Boston.com

A popular rare book on display will be the 1837 Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Esta narrative of 19th-century thief James Allen that was bound in his own skin, Burrus said.

“It’s not usually on display,” she said. “It’s usually in the locked rooms. That’s a really cool thing, [available] on the first floor.”

Also on display: the King’s Chapel Collection of mostly 17th-century theological works on the third floor, Burrus said, and George Washington‘s encyclopedia collection and a portion of his personal library from Mount Vernon.

Books are only the beginning, though. A large array of art work and sculptures, including those by John Singer Sargent, Gilbert Stuart, Polly Thayer Starr, and N.C. Wyeth, are on hand at the athenaeum.

“We have a huge number of paintings by Allan Rohan Crite,” Burrus said. “He’s a famous African-American artist who did a lot of Boston sceneries that are quite beautiful.”


Take a tour of the athenaeum in the video below (video may take a moment to load).

Saturday, Oct. 14 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Boston Athenaeum, 10 1/2 Beacon St., Boston; free; bostonathenaeum.org

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