Curator Nina Keen on “Sincere and Emotional: Stories of Connection”

This exhibition was on display in fall 2018, and this reflection has been retained for historical purposes. 

This post was written by Nina Keen, curator of our Fall 2018 exhibition. Keen is a graduate student in the Department of English at Loyola Marymount University. When asked what she hopes viewers will take away from the experience of this exhibition, Keen noted, “My ultimate wish is that, after seeing the exhibition, viewers will feel inspired by and connected to the artifacts rather than intimidated by them. I hope they will understand that human connection brought these objects into existence and will be able to empathize with those relationships.”

“Her state of mind is deplorable beyond any example. I almost fear whether she has strength at her time of life ever to get out of it.”

– From a letter by Charles Lamb, regarding his sister Mary

As I explored the archives, this letter by Romantic poet and essayist Charles Lamb stood out to me among the rest. It seemed to be such a heartbreaking outpouring by a man whose mind was consumed with his sister’s suffering. When I learned more about the story behind this letter, I began to understand why archival work is so important.

Mary Lamb, referred to in the quote above, murdered her mother. After this incident, she was placed in a mental institution until her brother Charles took it upon himself to care for her. Because so little was known about mental illness at the time, Mary’s condition was never fully cured – let alone treated – but only poorly managed. Without the preservation of letters like this one by Lamb, we might not be able to see important glimpses into the past.

The story of Charles and Mary both fascinated and haunted me, since it provided insight into a different era’s perception of mental illness and how families dealt with grief and trauma (and love bound up with the other two). As I dug further into the materials within Archives and Special Collections at LMU, I found many more compelling artifacts that have stories of love, grief, friendship, and success attached to them.

One artifact, drastically different from the letter described above, was a postcard that contained the face of Kewpie, a famous and cheerful baby character, created by the artist, Rose O’Neill. O’Neill’s life was just as fascinating to me as Lamb’s and, while she did face certain tragedies, was overall more uplifting to read about.

O’Neill was one of the few commercial female artists in the early 20th century United States and gained a fair amount of success with her creation of Kewpie, which soon became a nationwide – and even international – star. Interestingly, Kewpie was inspired by Rose O’Neill’s experience caring for her (five!) beloved younger siblings. I thought this was a charming story of artistic accomplishment and one that told a different kind of story about family relationships, but one that was just as important.

In addition to the Kewpie postcard and Charles Lamb’s letter, I found many more intriguing objects in the William H. Hannon Library Archives and Special Collections. These artifacts told stories of human connections that were relatable to me in a plethora of ways. In my exhibition, which is part of the Bellarmine Forum’s 2018 program, Collaboration and Creativity: Faith, Culture, and the Arts, I included objects that reveal people’s connections to faith, family, and their careers.

Included in my exhibit are: a 1481 etching designed by Botticelli for Dante’s Inferno, a telegram from Hollywood film actress Marilyn Monroe, a silkscreen print by Pop artist Corita Kent, a letter written by a father to his son during the Civil War, and the Third Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. While curating Sincere and Emotional: Stories of Connection, I felt a sense of kinship to the people who created these wonderful pieces of art and writing, and my hope is that you will too.