GW’s hidden treasures

“Bobby was born in the tobacco fields of Virginia, but he never ‘smoked a puff’ in his life,” reads a page from the 1908 edition of the Cherry Tree yearbook, printed when GW was still called Columbian University. “When he matriculated, he adopted the motto, ‘Never let your studies interfere with your college work.’ “

Despite having graduated more than 100 years ago, Bobby’s creed seems to live on in a fair share of current University students – who can now learn about this former graduate and many of his peers through the broad collection of historical documents and artifacts displayed by the Special Collections Department.

Perpetual construction reminds students that GW is a school striding into the future with sophisticated residence halls and academic buildings, but pieces of history can be found around campus that illuminate the University’s 188-year history.

Like a handwritten tuition bill from 1825, the total cost of which – including laundry service and “servants’ hire” – is recorded as $84. Or a 1799 facsimile of President George Washington’s will, which allocated stocks toward the eventual funding of the University.

These artifacts are displayed in the David S. Brown Memorabilia Room on the first floor of Gelman Library, but the room holds only a fraction of the objects that the University has amassed over the years, pieces that do not all relate strictly to GW.

“The nice thing about the objects in our collection is that they go hand in hand with world events,” said Ashley Locke, assistant University archivist.

“For example, during World War I, GW contracted with the U.S. government to develop a rocket program,” she said. “We still have a piece of one of those.”

The rocket fragment, like most of the collection’s objects, is in storage. Artifacts are kept in temperature-controlled facilities both on and off campus.

Still, some of the oldest are stored in plain sight. Perhaps the University’s most ancient object – a piece of Greek papyrus which documents a slave trade circa 150 A.D. – lies in a protected display case on the seventh floor of Gelman.

The University’s permanent collection of art is another extensive reserve of cultural artifacts. It contains more than 3,600 pieces from as early as 1821, and their selection ranges from tribal African art to Polaroids taken by Andy Warhol.

But make no mistake: “Our most popular works are, not surprisingly, images of George Washington himself,” said Lenore Miller, the director of University art galleries.

The most well-known is the life-size “Munro-Lenox” painting of Washington by Gilbert Stuart circa 1800, now in archival storage.

Another is the 1824 Porthole Portrait by Rembrandt Peale which can be found in University President Steven Knapp’s home at the F Street House, along with other artifacts like a set of oak furniture that once belonged to Ulysses S. Grant.

Diane Knapp, wife of University President Steven Knapp, said she feels enriched living among the relics.

“My favorite item that came with the house is definitely the 1710 grandfather clock in the living room,” she said.

Another image of Washington is displayed outdoors for all to see. The bronze statue of the president by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was purchased in 1932 and then installed in University Yard.

GW archivists, however, have to take great care with most of their artifacts, and much of their time is spent on conservation of objects in both archival and public storage.

“When you leave artwork in an uncontrolled environment, it is subject to light damage, temperature damage and physical damage. Someone might even knock it off a wall,” Miller said.

The University allocates only enough money for substantial work to be done on only several pieces a year, which Miller said is insufficient.

“Just conserving a frame can consume three-fourths of $1,000,” she said.

Regardless of budgetary concerns, Diane Knapp said she believes the University’s artifacts and artwork are “pleasant and welcoming – part grand, part functional and part fanciful.”

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