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Recasting the narrative of Edgar Allan Poe

Denis Family Graduate Curatorial Fellows delve into a rich, rare collection of artifacts to produce a Hopkins exhibit on the author, gaining invaluable professional experience in the process
Posted January 18, 2017
  • Elizabeth Brogden, a 2016 alumna and Denis Curatorial Fellow, attended the "The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe" exhibition's opening in October 2016. (all photographs by Robert Lorenzon) Read more »

  • Abigail RayAlexander, a 2016 alumna, Denis Fellow, and current assistant professor at the University of Southern Illinois, returned to Hopkins to take in the complete exhibit with her husband, Krieger postdoctoral fellow Christopher RayAlexander.

  • Jena Whitaker, a doctoral student and Denis Curatorial Fellow, helped launch a digital exhibit dedicated to Poe scholarship in January 2017.

  • The three Denis Curatorial Fellows contributed to each aspect of the exhibit, including its marketing materials and a book.

  • Included among the items displayed: This lock of Edgar Allan Poe's hair, which dates to 1849.

  • This daguerreotype copy of Poe's portrait by William Abbott Pratt dates to 1854.

  • Not all of the exhibit's items originate from the 19th Century: This latex mask of Poe's face was created for the television show, "The Following," in 2013.

  • This comic book-like collection of illustrated mystery stories written by Poe was published in the 1940s.

  • An illustrated 1884 version of Poe's masterpiece, "The Raven," is a highlight of the Peabody Library exhibit.

  • (l-r) Author David Gaylin, Poe collector Susan Tane, Hopkins' Gabrielle Dean and Winston Tabb, and author J.W. Ocker, gathered at the exhibit's opening.

109 items — including rare books, photographs, letters and even a lock of Edgar Allan Poe's hair. Three Krieger School doctoral students pored over these and scores of other artifacts as they crafted "The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore and Beyond: Selections from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection," a four-month exhibition at the George Peabody Library. Their golden ticket for such access? The Denis Family Graduate Curatorial Fellowship, which provides support for graduate students to work with and receive mentoring from curators in the creation of a public exhibition hosted by the Sheridan Libraries.

"Contact with a collection of this caliber invites us to think about Poe's work in a new way," says Gabrielle Dean, PhD, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, who worked closely with the Denis Fellows — Abigail RayAlexander, PhD (A&S '16), Elizabeth Brogden, PhD (A&S '16), and Jena Whitaker, a current doctoral student. Each gained insight into the many issues Poe grappled with in his career, such as the technological aspects of publication, social networks that writers of the time relied upon, and the challenge of persuading people to read one's work. "Making a new kind of sense out of these materials for exhibition visitors gives us the chance to rethink the basic questions that organize the field," Dean says.

André Denis, MPH (SPH '86), A&S '82, and his wife, Deborah — a member of the Sheridan Libraries Advisory Board — created the fellowship to express their gratitude to Hopkins and support their passion for cultural preservation. Their children, Anna Helena, A&S '11, and Gabriel, A&S '15, worked part-time in the Sheridan Libraries and enjoyed the exposure to rare materials. Anna Helena is now a librarian specializing in rare maps and books, and André's brother, Rafael, A&S '85, is an art historian and writer.

"People think that rare books are dead, but they are our history and our humanity," André Denis says. "These books survived for a reason, and we should give them the veneration they deserve."

The Denis Fellows spent a year researching objects and crafting the exhibit’s layout and visitor experience. Each fellow also wrote an essay for Edgar Allan Poe in 20 Objects from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection, published in 2016, and in January 2017 — coinciding with Poe's 208th birthday — Whitaker and Dean will launch an online exhibit to complement the physical one.

Although the world best knows Poe for his tales of horror and suspense, the exhibition delves into his genre-spanning versatility, from writing a scientific textbook on mollusks and inventing the modern detective story to penning poetry.

"All of the different varieties were equally important," Whitaker says, citing Exhibit Object 59, Eureka: A Prose Poem — her favorite object in the exhibition. "One wouldn't normally think of Poe as a writer in the field of cosmology," she explains of the book, which addresses the nature of the universe. The copy on display features notes in Poe’s own hand. “I find the annotations in the work to be fascinating, because they allow one to see the writer in process and to see him reflecting on his work."

As the exhibit draws to a close and Whitaker approaches the end of her doctoral program this semester, she'll experience yet another benefit of the Denis Fellowship — a professional boost.

"Having the word 'curatorial' attached to a C.V. does not go unnoticed," says RayAlexander, a former Denis Fellow and current assistant professor of French at the University of Southern Indiana. "It shows hiring committees a candidate's ability to recognize and communicate points of interest that cater to multiple audiences — and a willingness to try something a little different from the academic norm."

To learn more about how you can support graduate students and the Sheridan Libraries and University Museums, please contact Betsy Merrill, senior associate director of development.