Skip to content Skip to navigation

Upcoming Exhibitions


Save the date! Public opening September 17, 2019

A major exhibition this autumn, “Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library,” will showcase and interpret the King’s Chapel Library Collection, one of the surviving treasures of 17th century Boston, exploring the city's colonial history, the fine crafts of bookbinding and furniture-making, and the meaning of “essential knowledge.”

The exhibition will be open to the public from September 17, 2019 to March 14, 2020 in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery on the library’s first floor.

“Required Reading” will tell the story of colonial Bostonians’ quest for “essential knowledge”—and invite visitors to reflect on their own “must-read” lists. In 1698, the set of 221 books crossed the Atlantic on HMS Deptford, a fifty-gun man-of-war, to serve as a compact library of necessary works for King’s Chapel, the first Anglican church in Boston. They had been chosen by Reverend Thomas Bray of London, an appointed commissary, or spiritual guide, to Anglican outposts in the American colonies. Cached safely when the minister, loyal to the British Crown, fled Boston in 1776, the books re-emerged after the American Revolution, and were deposited at the Athenæum in 1823.

“The stories of the books’ arrival in New England as ‘necessary and useful’ texts for teaching and learning, their importance to religious leaders in Boston, and their impressive state of preservation—through the tumult of a city rocked by revolution—are dramatic and little-known. More than three centuries later, their appeal is not simply as a time capsule or as examples of the craft of bookbinding, but also as a profound prompt, giving us the opportunity to imagine the readings we’d select as essential in our own lives.”

—John Buchtel, Curator of Rare Books and Head of Special Collections

“Required Reading” will feature a full-scale replica of the massive, ark-like bookcase designed in 1883 to house the historic collection. The replica, built in 2019 by exhibition designer Brent Budsberg of Current Projects and supported in part by the Chipstone Foundation, is an achievement in contemporary fine woodworking. It will be modified in an innovative way, enabling visitors to immerse themselves in the rich contexts of the cabinet, its books, and their legacy.

As visitors examine compelling and important selections from the colonial library, they will be inspired to imagine their own definitions of “required reading” in the present day, “filling” the cabinet with their own personal touchstones.


Rare and notable items in the King’s Chapel Library Collection:

  • An atlas of the known world (1693)
  • Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1666)
  • A mathematics textbook covering everything from practical geometry to logarithms (1690)
  • A nine-language Bible, the “London Polyglot” (1657)
  • A Biblical concordance compiled by Massachusetts minister Samuel Newman (1658)

Just steps from Boston’s Freedom Trail, “Required Reading” will offer visitors a rare, up-close view of these influential works, in an exquisite library that has celebrated and preserved Boston’s revolutionary history from its inception. Exhibition visitors will also be able to explore the Athenæum’s art collection on the first floor.