Library exhibits occult culture book collection
Descending the steps in the Alexander Library, one is led into a dimly lit room with glass cases displaying leather-bound medicinal books predating the typewriter, colorful rocks excavated from the depths of the earth and papers with hieroglyphs containing illustrations resembling that of old Egypt.
One book showcases drawings of a man’s head about to be drilled into for medical purposes, while another has musical notes from a song entitled “Tarantella” about music as a remedy for tarantula venom.
These are the sort of historical artifacts the Rutgers University Archives team aimed to demonstrate this semester with their exhibit, “Unheard of Curiosities: An Exhibition of rare Books on the Occult and Esoteric Sciences,” which opened Feb. 17.
The exhibit, curated by University Archives and organized by Erika Gorder, highlights occult culture in the 17th and 19th centuries and includes books dating back to the 1500s.
“The collection came in the early 2000s,” said Gorder, a library associate at the Alexander Library. “We had gotten the collection from Clement Fairweather, who was a professor of English here in Rutgers.”
Fairweather was a recluse who owned a large house in Metuchen, she said. He dedicated three floors of his home to books and donated 300 from his collection to the University.
“For three years, we were trying to do the exhibit, but nobody on our staff had a real academic background on any of the material,” she said. “I had an interest in learning it, though.”
She attributed her interest in 19th century culture to being raised with fantasy, horror and pop culture material such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“I didn’t try to predefine what I thought was an occult identity,” she said. “I based off what we had in the collection. What I determined was that it primarily involved astrology and astronomy.”
The medieval period blurred the scientific and mathematical aspects of science. Alchemy and astrology were part of historical science, particularly astronomy and chemistry.
Many sciences studied at the time were taken very seriously. In the modern day, they are dismissed as pseudoscience, or science that lacks enough evidence and support to be considered true. The documentation and history of these rejected sciences is precisely what the exhibit is showcasing.
The exhibit remains open to the public Monday though Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until July 3.