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Taking up a broader mission

A library, a garden, an art trove. And a president who wants to share the wealth.

May 25, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

He's particularly pleased with a 2006 gift, the Burndy Library. Its 67,000-volume collection on the history of science, including 40,000 rare books, was assembled by Bern Dibner, a Connecticut inventor and industrialist who founded Burndy Engineering Co., and his son, David. The Dibners gave a smaller part of the collection to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains. They lent the rest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but eventually decided to give that portion to another institution. The Huntington competed with 16 other suitors, Koblik says, "including great universities like Michigan and Yale and Columbia and Cal and Stanford and independent research centers. The family chose us and they have endowed five positions in the library and established a scholarship program so that the Huntington is now one of the great centers in the world for the study of the history of science."

Ever the diplomat, Koblik won't say why the Burndy Library landed in San Marino, except that the donors were looking for a home that would "treat the materials properly, get them in use and celebrate the family that built the collection." The Dibner Hall of the History of Science, Medicine and Technology, a permanent exhibition on the evolution of scientific knowledge, will open in the Huntington's main library in November.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 07, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Huntington: An article in the May 25 Calendar section on Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, said an installation of American art would open in the Erburu Gallery in May 2010. It will open in May 2009.

It's probably natural for a scholar to start a Huntington tour at the library, but Koblik is equally proud of the art collections and gardens. Emerging from the Munger, he hops into a golf cart and drives visitors through the grounds, calling out to staff members along the way.

"We'll be there in a minute," he shouts at a guard in front of the Erburu Gallery, which opened in 2005. Although it was designed as a home for the rapidly expanding collection of American art, the gallery debuted as a showcase of European art while the traditional gallery was renovated.

"It wasn't just a practical solution," he says of the dual-purpose structure. "It was a bold innovation, and I think it has worked wonderfully well. Now we are excited about the new American exhibition that will open in May 2010."

Moving on to the Botanical Center, a project that he inherited, Koblik parks then fiddles with keys to a building featuring hands-on exhibits of botanical environments. A children's garden and a learning center with a library and laboratories fill out the complex.

"One of the dilemmas facing us was that when most people think of the Huntington, they think of the gardens," he says. "They are beautiful and one of the finest botanical collections in the world. But the institution itself had not defined the role of the garden vis-a-vis the library and the art. There wasn't a clear vision about how to make them work together.

"Jim Folsom, director of the gardens, had that vision -- this idea of a botanical center that combines teaching, research facilities and exhibitions. It has pulled the gardens, with the library and the art collections, into a common definition. And the definition is: We are a collections-based research and education institution."

That said, he drives through the cactus garden, chatting about a new, self-guided tour that's accessible by cellphone, and pointing out one of his favorite plants, the puya, a South American bromeliad. Then he rolls on to the Japanese garden, established by founder Henry E. Huntington. Next comes the new Chinese garden, inspired by traditional private gardens designed for contemplation and built by Chinese workers.

"Why build a Chinese garden?" Koblik asks. "We, in this country, don't have a very good understanding of Chinese culture. It's one of the most important in world history, and there's been almost a systematic ignorance of things Chinese." What's more, he says, the garden is a way of connecting with the San Gabriel Valley's huge Chinese community, which has provided considerable support for the project.

Back in his office, Koblik says he didn't have a vision when he came to the Huntington.

"I had a sense of the importance of the institution, and that's where I started," he says. "I started with the notion that there was power in extraordinary collections. But a collections-based institution isn't a fixed thing. To some extent, it's the beast you create. We are still very much in the testing mode: testing ideas, seeing what works and where we should put our resources. We can't be everything to everybody. We are a small institution, relatively speaking."


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