The Boston Athenaeum, a vast private library overlooking the Granary Burial Ground, just a stone’s throw from the State House, is in many ways the city’s best kept, most elegant, and surprisingly accessible secret.
At its curmudgeonly, Harry Potter-esque address of 10½ Beacon St., the Athenaeum is a place that scholars, writers, and students have repaired for more than 200 years. You may have seen the top floor study area — with its double height windows, sculptures, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with classic volumes — John Travolta and Robert Duvall film “A Civil Action.”
In addition to the Athenaeum’s collections of new and old (actually very old) books, paintings, and sculpture, you can attend some of the most varied and informative lectures and presentations in all of Boston. We rounded up some of our top picks for events open to the public at the Athenaeum this month. Come for the lectures and you may just be enticed to join.
“Americans are fascinated by dynasties,” said Maria Daniels, Athenaeum director of communications and patron services. “We don’t have royal dynasties, but we have political ones, and long before the Bushes and the Clintons, we had the Adamses.”
We’re talking the original Adams family, not the one you know from movies and Nick at Nite. John and Abigail Adams founded a famous political family, much to the delight of Trivial Pursuit players everywhere. Less well known: the family eventually collapsed into Kardashian-like fame, wealth, and aimlessness. After Charles Francis Adams Sr., a diplomat during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, persuaded the British to stop supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War, you haven’t heard a peep from the Adamses since. Historian and “Heirs of an Honored Name” author Douglas R. Egerton will discuss the political legacy and decline of the Adams family.
Friday, Nov. 8 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.; Free for members and non-members (with $10 admission)
“It’s as if you were trying to figure out what books to send to Mars, if humans were establishing a colony there,” said Daniels. “That’s what Thomas Bray was doing back in the 1690s, when the colonies in question were American but the problem was the same. What would people need to know in such a far off place?”
In 1697, Thomas Bray, a priest in the Church of England, published a document (“Bibliotheca Parochialis”) listing all the “necessary and useful” books that church leaders would need in order to serve effectively in the colonies. “Bray was an ideologue,” Daniels said, “trying to spread Church of England dogma around the world. So he sent the books he saw as the necessary tools for converting people and fighting against the spread of other faiths, like Quakerism and Puritanism. Some of the information in those books was really off. Like, ‘California is an island.’ Hey, it was 1698.”
The 200 leather-bound books Bray sent to Boston have a storied history. They crossed the Atlantic on a British man-of-war ship, resided at Boston’s King’s Chapel until the American Revolution, were hidden away for decades, and then deposited at and finally donated to the Boston Athenaeum.
The Athenaeum’s John Buchtel will walk you through the story behind the books, and you can start daydreaming about which books you’d bring on a journey to colonize Mars.
Wednesday, Nov. 13 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.; Free for members and $15 for non-members
We all know the story of Thanksgiving from the pilgrims’ perspective — humble British folk encountering noble Native Americans who taught the newcomers to grow corn. Well, maybe the Native Americans saw it differently.
Actually, they saw things very differently, and we know that because the Brits brought literacy to the Wampanoag, the Native Americans living on Martha’s Vineyard, the Cape, and other such lovely places.
“The Wampanoag made use of the courts in Massachusetts,” Daniels said, “which means that they have the largest collection of written documents—letters, wills, deeds, land transfers—of any Native American group.”
George Washington University Professor David J. Silverman specializes in the study of archival documents, Native stories, and the overall relationship between the pilgrims and the first Native Americans they encountered, the Wampanoag tribe. How did the pilgrims and the Wampanoag really meet? How did that relationship rise and fall? You’ll eat your turkey and stuffing in a whole new light.
Tuesday, Nov. 19 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m; Free for members and non-members (with $10 admission)
If you just want to see the building and skip the lectures, you might want to try the thrice weekly art and architecture tours held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (admission is free on the second Saturdays of each month). A knowledgeable docent will take you through all the spaces of the Athenaeum and show off some of the book and art collections. This is also your selfie moment, Daniels said, “We get on Instagram a lot because of the tours.”
Boston Athenaeum; 10 ½ Beacon St., Boston; Mondays-Thursdays from 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed on Sundays; bostonathenaeum.org