VCU Libraries launches digital gallery to display rare treasures from its collections

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Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries is putting on display some of the rarest and most intriguing items from its collections and archives, such as the papers of the influential Richmond artist Theresa Pollak, as part of a new online gallery space.

VCU Libraries Gallery will feature materials mostly held in Special Collections and Archives at James Branch Cabell Library and Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences, and will include items from the libraries' collections of book art, comic arts, manuscripts, rare books, medical artifacts and more.

"This is a virtual space where Special Collections and Archives departments will fulfill part of their outreach mission to promote our collections, and create greater awareness about our unique holdings," said Wesley Chenault, Ph.D., head of Special Collections and Archives for Cabell Library. "This helps us reach a different audience, maybe a broader audience, by tapping into new platforms and technologies."

VCU Libraries Gallery is launching with three exhibits, and several more are in the works.

One of the inaugural exhibits features highlights — including documents, photographs and correspondence — from the papers of Theresa Pollak, founder of the VCU School of the Arts.

The exhibit, "Remembering Theresa Pollak: An Exhibition on the Founder of VCUarts," provides information on Pollak's career, her relationship with VCU, her teaching philosophy, her art and the development of her ideas.

"You get a sense of her impact here on campus, and how she created what we have now with the School of the Arts as a founder," Chenault said.

The Pollak exhibit was put together by Samantha Karam, a Ph.D. student in art history at VCU, who took on the project while interning in Special Collections and Archives in the spring.

"First, being a VCUarts student, I was deeply interested in the history of the School of the Arts — one of the university's best-known schools," Karam said. "Second, due to my interest in 20th-century art, I wanted to know more about the woman responsible for essentially bringing modern art to Richmond. By advocating non-traditional artistic styles and laying the foundation for a progressive art school, Pollak really helped shaped Richmond into the creative community it is today."

Another exhibit showcases illustrations and excerpts from a collection of very old and rare medical books donated to VCU Libraries in 1995 by Dr. Herman J. Flax.

An illustration of a Roman bath from "De Arte Gymnastica."
An illustration of a Roman bath from "De Arte Gymnastica."

The exhibit, "From the Library of Dr. Herman J. Flax: Physician, Poet, Collector," offers a glimpse of the collection's books, such as a 1573 volume of "De Arte Gymnastica," which was one of the earliest books to discuss the therapeutic value of gymnastics and sports.

"These are a lot of very ancient imprints related to physical medicine, rehabilitation and gymnastics," said Jodi Koste, university archivist and head of Tompkins-McCaw's Special Collections and Archives. "And so we're able to provide images of these wonderful woodcuts that are in the books. This lets people know that they're available, and it can save wear-and-tear on these books."

The third inaugural exhibit, "Through the Looking Glass," displays microscopic images created by VCU students, faculty and staff as part of an ongoing exhibit in Tompkins-McCaw Library.

The exhibit includes microscopic images of a black widow spider’s silk-spinning organ, an ovarian tumor, muscle fibers in the inner ear, a traumatic brain injury in a mouse and much more.

"These are beautiful microscopic images," Koste said. "[VCU Libraries Gallery] is a way to view them if you can't visit the Tompkins-McCaw Library or if you want to learn a little more about them."

In the months ahead, VCU Libraries will open several more exhibits, including one that will showcase a collection of interactive book art called "Readers and Players," featuring artists' books in the form of board games, a Jacob's ladder and even a box of candy, as well as flip books and decks of cards.

"As objects, we get a lot of use of these from different departments in the School of the Arts," Chenault said. "We see graduate students and undergraduate students coming in to touch, to hold [these books] — because it's very much a teaching collection. What's nice about this platform is that it leverages technology to allow people to see it who might not otherwise have the ability to come see it [in person]."

Another future exhibit, called "ExLibris: Traces of Ownership," will focus on the ways in which people leave their mark on their books, such as inscriptions and book plates.

"It's not about the books, it's about what people leave behind in the books and what it tells you about the ownership of the books," said Alice Campbell, digital initiatives archivist at Cabell Library. "One of the wonderful things about having this kind of online exhibit space is that nobody is going to come to Special Collections and Archives and ask us to see book plates. We know these cool things are in the collection, so we can share them here."

Visit VCU Libraries Gallery at For more information, follow VCU Libraries Gallery on Twitter at @VCUExhibits.