The Huntington Connection

This year I’ve been fortunate to be spending half my time on a new Huntington Foundation fellowship, to establish a new joint research institute with Caltech in the history of science and technology. As part of that, I’ve had an office on the Caltech campus, an obligation to assemble a two week workshop in June that is to result in a published volume of essays, and an obligation to attend a weekly Fellows meeting on Wednesdays. The fellowship also comes with library privileges at the Huntington Library, USC, UCLA, and others–an awesome thing indeed! But all that has fallen apart over the past couple of weeks. Here’s how.

It feels like years ago already, but on March 8, my co-organizer for the workshop, W. Bernard Carlson of University of Virginia, arrived in town. He was to give a lecture on his recent book on Nikola Tesla on Thursday, March 12, at Caltech. On Tuesday, Caltech cancelled his lecture, under the guidance that groups over 100 people should no longer meet. The Huntington Library also cancelled its large lecture series through the end of May. Our small (10 person), late-June workshop didn’t count under those initial guidelines. Bernie made arrangements to take Amtrak back to Virginia, leaving Wednesday night.

Wednesday morning, Bernie and I met at the Huntington’s 1919 Cafe to work out our detailed schedule. Steve Hindle, the director for research at the Huntington, was called into an emergency meeting about the COVID situation, so we met with the administrator who was handling our logistics. Steve ran in briefly and we asked him when we’d know about June cancellations–after all, anyone paying attention to the disease spread had to be suspicious that the May cancellations were likely to turn into June cancellations (and, I’m betting right now, July cancellations.) Steve said we’d know in a fortnight, which conformed to our expectations. So we wrote to our participants Thursday morning that we’d know the workshop’s fate in a couple of weeks, but in the event of cancellation we’d continue working towards the volume. No reason not to, as we can write an edit a volume from our locations of Splendid Isolation. Our workshop was cancelled later that day.

The Long-Term Fellows Working Group dissolved on the same schedule. The group’s purpose was to facilitate our individual work and publications through reading each other’s work and providing feedback and critique at a weekly meeting. This was a really wonderful experience, and I learned a great deal from the others. It was a fun group. What happened, effectively, is simply that it became untenable. A number of foreign scholars had to leave, fearing they wouldn’t be able to later. For a couple of days, Steve Hindle wanted it to become voluntary, but the Library eliminated even small meetings. Again, for a couple of days it appeared that the research library would remain open so the Fellows could at least continue their research, but that changed, too. On March 18, the Library closed completely. Most of the Fellows returned to wherever their homes were. I wish them all well.

As the above image indicates, the Huntington Library and Gardens ultimately closed completely through April 19th. I won’t be surprised if the reopening is much later.