"One of the poster children of our exhibition," said Cynthia Burlingham, pointing to an exquisitely detailed drawing of a flea roughly the size of a puppy.
The flea is pictured in the book "Micrographia," published in London in 1665 and noteworthy for having some of the earliest engravings of creatures as they appeared under a microscope. To some degree, the artist was winging it. Observed Burlingham, "As someone said, 'Have you ever looked through a 17th century microscope?"'
Burlingham, a senior curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum, was leading the way through the current exhibition, "The World From Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles," which she helped to organize.
It is, to say the least, a study in eclecticism. Together with the flea, there are:
A 1933 King Kong poster, a printed Japanese scroll from the 8th century exhibited with an 8-inch wooden pagoda that once housed it in a Buddhist temple; a 1970 copy of the Black Panther magazine and a box of 19th century glass eyes from Germany, neatly displayed.
In a feat described by one spokeswoman as akin to "herding cats," the Hammer has gathered treasures from 32 L.A.-area special collections libraries--posters, books, photographs, maps, paintings, prints--a collection that belies any concept of Los Angeles as a city with no literary or cultural pedigree.
"Most people, when they hear you're doing a library exhibit, they [sarcastically] say, 'Wow, how exciting,"' says Burlingham. "They've been amazed."
Now, she is pointing out Euclid's "Elements of Geometry" (1570), with its three-dimensional paper pyramids--"The first pop-up book." Next, she's standing before a case displaying Amelia Earhart's log from the first transatlantic flight by a woman (1928), with the aviatrix as passenger in a tri-motor Fokker piloted by Wilmer Stultz. She wrote, presciently, "The essence of adventure is risk--probably the risk of life." She would disappear nine years later in the Pacific while circumnavigating the globe.
Displayed close by is a faded letter from Earhart to her then fiance, George Putnam, of the publishing family, in which she makes it clear that, on her part at least, this is no mad love affair. She describes her reluctance to marry, for fear it will impede her career, states she would not hold him to "any medieval code of faithfulness" and asks that he promise to free her after a year of marriage "if we find no happiness together."
The exhibition includes the first edition of Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," from London at the turn of the century. "She didn't have a publisher," Burlingham explained, so she published it herself, economizing by having only the frontispiece illustration in color.
There even are cookbooks, among them an 1872 volume published in San Francisco, titled "How to Keep a Husband; or, Culinary Tactics." Observed Burlingham, "Most cookbook authors before the 20th century were men." And Martha Stewart did not invent domestic perfection. Consider this title published in London in 1644: "Delights for Ladies, to Adorn Their Person, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories With Beauties, Bouquets, Perfumes, and Waters."
An 18th century medical text is opened to the page with a cure for the bite of a mad dog, an Anais Ninn diary to a page with a look-at-me photograph of the author, who was only 12. "Already an exhibitionist," noted Burlingham.
A Man Ray portrait of Gertrude Stein (1930) shares display space with a small Picasso painting, "Homage a Gertrude" (1909). "It used to hang on the ceiling in her Paris apartment," Burlingham said. Close inspection reveals the tiny nail holes in the canvas.
Oscar Wilde may have had nothing to declare but his genius when he arrived in the United States for a triumphant tour in 1882, but his play "Vera; or, The Nihilists," flopped a year later in New York. There's a copy of it here, inscribed by Wilde to Walt Whitman.
"The guards like this exhibit," Burlingham said, as there's plenty to read during their shifts.
That reading matter includes an 1872 Los Angeles city and county directory, with 1,500 entries, listing names and addresses. The first entries also note occupations--shoemaker, well borer, widow, saddler, barkeeper, carriage maker--but the compilers gave up on that after the Bs.
All of the 350 items in the exhibit are from local libraries open to the public, but many are not on public view because of space limitations and are available only to scholars.
Under what other single roof, albeit for a limited time, could one find a pen sketch for a bridge--drawn on a place mat--by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava; an 18th century Japanese scroll with a gorily detailed dissection of the body of an executed criminal and an 1881 map of Tombstone, Ariz., on which staked-out mining claims are identified with fanciful names such as Cleopatra, Brooklyn and Annie Laurie?
"The World From Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles" is on view at UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., through Jan. 13. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, (310) 443-7000.