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‘Of intrinsic value to the world’: The many marvels of UC’s museums, libraries

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Rare items in UC Berkeley's 10 collections and 22 libraries include William Shakespeare's first folio, an oracle bone fragment from the Shang Dynasty and original private papers of Mark Twain.


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JUNE 18, 2023

With millions of volumes, manuscripts and artifacts, navigating UC Berkeley’s many libraries and museums can feel like a labyrinthine endeavor. Outsiders and newcomers may not appreciate the wealth of knowledge stored nearby or the care that goes into its preservation.

However, prying eyes will find before them the stories of the planet and its people, collected from across space and time. Campus’s 10 collections and 22 libraries hold some of the rarest pieces in their fields.

The Magnes Collection for Jewish Art and Life

First established in 1962, The Magnes Collection joined UC Berkeley in 2010. Today, it is one of the largest Jewish museum collections worldwide with about 20,000 objects sourced from several regions of the world, which are housed in a facility on Allston Way, according to curator Francesco Spagnolo.

Some of its most prized pieces include the recently acquired works of Arthur Szyk, an early 1900s Polish American caricaturist, and a collection of 30,000 photographs by Roman Vishniac, who is known for photographing Jewish communities in central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, Spagnolo said.

“His photographic record is unique,” Spagnolo said. “It is one of the largest gifts of art in the entire history of the campus.”

Notably, a mezuzah from the collection was selected for display at the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in 2022.

The diverse set of textiles, art, drawings, paintings, prints, archival documents and written works requires a variety of care methods, according to Spagnolo, and are stored in climate-controlled conditions.

Spagnolo said the collection is displayed at The Magnes Collection’s facility in rotating exhibitions and storage of remaining objects is in glass casing so it can be viewed. The collection has also been digitized. In addition, pieces from the collection will go on display around the world in traveling exhibits before returning to Berkeley in 2025.

Spagnolo emphasized the collection’s applications in teaching and research.

“There is an ongoing program of undergraduate apprenticeships over the years and tens of students have worked with us,” Spagnolo said. “They are trained to work with collections and to help assist in creating exhibitions and public programs.”

UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley

First created in 1890, the UC Botanical Garden moved to its current location in 1925. It houses more than 10,000 types of plants from geographic regions on every continent.

It is also home to several species of plants that are now endangered or entirely extinct from nature, according to curator Holly Forbes. It includes an endangered species seed bank and is a plant rescue center for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“These very rare species are of intrinsic value to the world in protecting them from extinction, and of value to campus and other researchers around the world who are studying them,” Forbes said in an email. “If we weren’t growing them, they would not be available for research and conservation to reintroduce them to the wild.”

In general, the garden uses many criteria to evaluate plant additions. Any new plant is traceable to its source location in the wild, according to Forbes. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as when the species is needed for instructional purposes or is exceptionally rare.

Some of the garden’s prized and prominent exhibits are a large California redwood, an Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the corpse flower, and several endangered Contra Costa goldfields, which are currently in the process of being repopulating.

The Bancroft Library

The Bancroft Library is a special collections library and contains more than 70 million rare manuscripts, books, maps and pictorial works, according to interim pictorial curator Christine Hult-Lewis.

The library was founded in 1859 by Hubert Howe Bancroft, who primarily focused on collecting primary sources showing the history of the American west and of northern Latin America. Campus acquired Bancroft’s collection in 1905 and has built upon it since then. The current building housing the library was finished in 1950.

“All of our holdings benefit the community in the form of providing primary source materials to form the building blocks of writing accurate and informed histories of different aspects of our shared culture(s),” Hult-Lewis said in an email. “It is our mission to collect, preserve, protect, steward, and make available everything in our Library to serve the public good.”

One of the library’s rarest pieces is the Codex Fernandez Leal, a 16th-century pictographic scroll that shows the lineage of the Cuicatec rulers in modern day Oaxaca in Mexico, according to Hult-Lewis. The codex was gifted to the library by the family of William Crocker, a wealthy San Francisco banker whose wife Ethel was a suffragette and philanthropist.

The Crocker family also donated an original copy of William Shakespeare’s first folio, “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies,” which was published in 1623, seven years after the writer’s death.

Lastly, Hult-Lewis highlighted the 1846-47 diary of Patrick Breen, a member of the Donner party. The Donner party were travellers to the American west who became stranded at Lake Donner in 1846 and endured starvation, with some resorting to cannibalism to survive. The diary was part of Bancroft’s original collection and was acquired by campus in 1905.

The library also houses “Drake’s Plate,” which was once thought to be the actual plate of brass that Sir Francis Drake engraved to claim California for England in 1579.

“In 2003 a group of scholars came together to provide evidence that the plate was a hoax that was taken too far,” Hult-Lewis said in the email. “The fake plate remains on display at Bancroft, a reminder that even the most knowledgeable among us can be taken in by an elaborate prank.”

According to Hult-Lewis, new pieces are added to the collection by group consensus of the library’s director and curators, who each have expertise in a different subject area. One of their goals is to build up collections that have gone underappreciated in the past. To expand the collection, the curators stay in contact with individuals, families, institutions and dealers who possess items of interest.

Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, or MVZ, was founded in 1908. It focuses on evolutionary biology and investigating the diverse species of vertebrates that exist in the world, especially in western North America.

MVZ acquires most of its specimens from field work, zoos, rehabilitation centers and federal agencies to make them available for research, according to Michelle Koo, the staff curator of biodiversity informatics. In addition, the MVZ archives receives research material such as field notebooks in the form of donations.

“Almost all our material is irreplaceable since each specimen or art piece, or field notebook represents a singular snapshot of a species occurrence at a specific time and place, which is both a biological, ecological and sociological time capsule,” Koo said in an email. “Museum collections are valuable for just that archival documentation that lets research explore the past and present and help predict the future.”

Koo added that some of the museum’s possessions are more than 100 years old and museum staff use special storage and procedures to care for all specimens.

The vast collection allows researchers from around the world to examine changes in animal populations and behavior over time, the myriad applications of which include the study of diseases, according to the museum’s website.

Notably, the MVZ collection was used when researchers investigated the adverse effects of the pesticides DDT and DDE on bird eggs. This work eventually led to the chemicals being banned in the United States.

While MVZ does not display its collection, part of it is exhibited in campus’s Valley Life Sciences Building, or VLSB, and certain pieces are kept in a teaching collection for instructional purposes, Koo said.

The museum has been the subject of controversy in the past, but has worked to rectify the issues that caused it, Koo added.

“We have had some human remains that have been cataloged in the early days (1910s) and we have proactively worked with the campus NAGPRA representatives to repatriate those remains respectfully,” Koo said in the email. “We no longer have those in our care.”

C. V. Starr East Asian Library

Opened in 2008, C. V. Starr East Asian Library, or EAL, was built to consolidate and build upon several collections of East Asian works that campus possessed. It currently houses nearly one million Chinese, Japanese and Korean materials, such as books, manuscripts, woodblock prints, movies, scriptures and rare maps and scrolls.

Materials are selected for rarity, scarcity and intrinsic value — typically, Chinese materials from before 1796, Japanese material from before 1868 and Korean materials from before 1910 are accepted, according to library curator Deborah Rudolph.

“EAL tries to present a wide variety of material to give students and researchers an idea of what the rare book room contains,” Rudolph said in an email. “When not on display, rare materials are housed in EAL’s rare book room.”

One of its rarest pieces include an oracle bone fragment from the Shang Dynasty, which was gifted to the library by professor emeritus David Keightley, according to Rudolph.

It also houses “Hanjung mallok,” the autobiographical memoirs of a crown princess from 18th-century Korea whose husband was executed by the king and whose story has been adapted several times for movies and TV.

In addition, Rudolph highlighted a collection of 17th century Japanese maps entitled “Tōkaidō dōchū ezu byōbu” that EAL purchased from the Mitsui clan following World War II. As part of this purchase, the library also acquired “Taishi Bigan lu,” an account of the Shang Dynasty Prince Bigan who was honored by Confucius in the analects and later deified.

Rudolph emphasised the great care taken to ensure these materials are not damaged, including temperature and humidity control, plexiglass shields to filter UV light and supportive displays that are cleaned regularly.

“While researchers may examine anything housed in our rare book room, access to the room itself is strictly limited to the director and the curator,” Rudolph said in the email. “Researchers use the material in our rare book reading room, which is under camera surveillance and the watchful eye of our Public Services staff.”

UC Museum of Paleontology

Contained in VLSB, the UC Museum of Paleontology, or UCMP, was founded in 1921.

“We have a great many rare fossils from all over the world, including some unique dinosaur material,” said UCMP director Charles Marshall in an email. “We hold in trust (part of) the only direct record of the history of life on Earth, which is open to researchers from across the globe.”

Being a research museum, most of its works are not open to the public, according to Marshall. There are some notable exceptions, such as a Tyrannosaurus rex cast on display at VLSB and several pieces housed in wall-mounted glass casing.

However, the museum’s collection is available — and frequently used — for research and teaching purposes, Marshall said.

He added UCMP acquires new pieces through field work and donations and has specialist staff who care for the fossils. New pieces are selected for addition to the collection based on their research value.

“The UCMP is one of the world’s largest collections of fossils, well used by outside visitors and by campus students, faculty and staff,” Marshall said in the email. “It is truly a unique resource!”

Mark Twain Papers and Project

Added to the Bancroft Library in 1971, the Mark Twain Papers are a collection of the original private papers of author Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. The Mark Twain project aims to digitize everything Mark Twain wrote in his lifetime, including more than 2,000 letters.

The papers were gifted by Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens Samossoud, in 1949. Other letters and documents have been acquired by campus over the years through various donations and purchases, according to Bob Hirst, the general editor of the Mark Twain Project and curator for the Mark Twain Papers.

“The collection benefits not only the University but everyone in the world who has an interest in Mark Twain, and who would like to know as much as we can know about him and how he wrote his many many works,” Hirst said in an email. “For example, our edition of Huckleberry Finn, his masterpiece, is the only way to know about and study how the author revised his work in the process of composition.”

According to Hirst, some of the collection’s rarest pieces are the documents that Twain wrote in his early life, including letters to his family and early notebooks he kept while working as a Mississippi River pilot. In addition, the collection contains the oldest-known photographic image of Twain from 1850, a lock of his hair from 1906 and an 1865 letter where he declared his intent to pursue a career in “literature of a low order.”

Hirst said some of Twain’s works have seen criticism in recent years for their portrayal of slavery and use of racial slurs, but argued that Twain’s intention was to “faithfully” portray pre-Civil War Mississippi and that his work did not have malicious intent.

“There’s an important distinction to be made between someone using the N-word as a slur, and someone representing how that word was used by others more than 100 years ago in a society that was openly if not proudly racist,” Hirst said in the email. “Suppressing or censoring Mark Twain’s works doesn’t seem to us remotely justifiable.”

The papers are not regularly displayed, but are stored in a vault in acid-free folders and boxes; individual letters are protected by a plastic Mylar sheath.

The original documents can be viewed under supervision by anyone visiting the Papers, but most research is done with photocopies, according to Hirst.

“UC (Berkeley) should be proud of the fact that it is working hard to preserve what Mark Twain did and wrote, and to make that readily, freely available to the world,” Hirst said in the email.

Contact Ratul Mangal at 


JUNE 18, 2023