Unicorns come to the Hay (and to Providence)

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Artist’s research sketch, 1999, from the John Hay exhibit

On Wednesday, the John Hay library hosted a unicorn colloquium (yes, really), with discussion from Brown professors from different departments “engaging in scholarly inquiry into the unicorn legend.” Audience members, including a few people who came wearing fabric plush horns on their heads, enjoyed “unicorn-themed treats” after the event, which marked the opening of the “The Unicorn Found Exhibit” at the John Hay Library.

This exhibit is part of a larger community “interactive art experience” happening through the summer in Providence, titled Unicorns In Residence: Providence, a mysterious series of unicorn-related events and installations that centers around a search for “The Missing Unicorn.”

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Yes, this is a real thing. The search for “The Missing Unicorn” will begin with posters popping up around the city mid-March, which will say that the unicorn was last seen in Providence’s Fargnoli Park. People can call a “Unicorn Hotline” to leave their sightings and tips. The Providence Children’s Museum will host the “Missing Unicorn Wall” and “PlayPhone,” from April 15 to May 15, with an audio component and glitter phone booth. Through the end of the month, the Providence Public Library will host “The Unicorn Stampede,” an art installation of life-size glitter unicorns floating on pink and purple clouds set to music. Galloping life-size unicorn images will appear throughout Providence at the end of the month on the sides of buildings and “other surprise locations.”

The opening colloquium, The Unicorn Found: Science, Literature, and the Arts, featured Brown professors from three departments: Johanna Hanick from the Classics department, Amy Remensnyder from the History department, and Felipe Rojas Silva, from the Archaeology and the Ancient World, Egyptology and Assyriology departments. The three panelists spoke about different aspects of the unicorn in its mythological, symbolic, and narrative significance, approaching the topic from their areas of expertise.

First, Professor Hanick looked at the presence of hybrid creatures and monsters in Greek mythology, focusing in particular on a theme of ‘absence.’ Hanick highlighted Ctesias, a Greek 5th century BC poet, as often cited as the first to have written about a one-horned, unicorn-like animal. Ctesias described:

“There are, in India, certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark read, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit in length. [The animals] fight with thrusts of horn; they kick, bite, and strike with wounding force… they cannot be taken alive. The flesh of this animal is so bitter that it is not edible; it is hunted for its horn and its ankle-bone.”

Professor Hanick emphasized that references to an animal that lived in ‘India,’ are some of the only places we can find unicorn-like creatures in Greek literature, as ‘India’ was  somewhere the Greeks saw as exotic and beyond their occupied world. This was because all the mythological monsters, like the Chimera and giant mammals, were written about as in the past, no longer existing in Greece at the time these poets were writing. Hanick suggested that myths of heroes slaying monsters, like Theseus and the Minotaur and Hercules and the Hydra, while also focused on the individual achievements of mortal heroes, as a whole amount to represent a purification of the world, a cleansing, from the “dark and terrifying beginnings” – a way to describe the absence of these creatures from the civilized Greek world.

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If the libraries were pop singers, who would they be?

The age-old question of which dining hall matches up with which rapper has at last been settled. Recently, a new comparison arose in my mind: what about the Brown libraries and pop singers? See below for the final ten pairings. [Ed’s note: We have ten libraries?!]

The Rock = Taylor Swift

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“I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write an essay in absolute quiet.”

The Rock is always there: dependable, eclectic, the “America’s sweetheart” of libraries. It could only possibly be paired with the adorably inane TSwift. Sure, it’s about as easy to complain that you’re spending way too much time at the Rock as you do listening to Taylor. Yes, after a while it begins to seem like they’re both just the same thing over and over, but stay away from either one and you’ll return to find something new and interesting, whether it’s a bloodthirsty new music video or a shelf entirely filled with strange sexual practices across history. In fact, the Rock might even be a bit more predictable than Swift, since you can generally count on the Rock to not have bangs, and to not suddenly remove all of its songs from Spotify. (Side note: They both, permanently or temporarily, reside in Rhode Island.)

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What’s behind the door to one of the biggest magic collections in the world?

If you’ve ever explored around the Hay, you might have noticed a seemingly average door on the second floor. A little plaque marks: “Smith Magic Room.” But upon reaching for the handle, you realize it’s locked.

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Recently, I took a tour of the Smith Magic room, a collection of books and paraphernalia donated by alumnus H. Adrian Smith ’30. Smith was an engineering student who paid his way through school by performing as a magician. By 1948, he was elected national president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and had already starting collecting all things magicana. His collection, what amounts to possibly the second largest magic collection in the world, was left to Brown.

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John Hay seems like a stereotypical Brown student

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Last night, Brown hosted “John Hay Night,” a celebration of the life and scholarship of one of its most famous alumni. The event showcased the impressive set of resources that the university has collected about Hay, who served as a diplomat for three U.S. presidents. Professor Michael Vorenberg introduced separate talks by John Taliaferro, author of All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, and Joshua Zeitz AM’98 PhD’02, author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. Taliaferro’s book is the first biography of Hay in over 80 years, and Zeitz’s work puts a new spin on a portion of Hay’s life that is often overlooked. As he puts it, Lincoln buffs know little about the Roosevelt-era Hay, and vice versa.

John Hay, the man for whom the beautiful, renovated library you’re too lazy to set foot in is named, has a résumé that would make our template blush. He spent almost 60 years in public life, from his time as Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary—see, not everyone goes into finance or consulting—to his death while serving as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt. He was instrumental in key moments in U.S. history like the forging of the Open Door policy with China and the construction of the Panama Canal. Along with John Nicolay, the second of “Lincoln’s Boys,” he wrote a truly massive biography of the late President that brought to light many of the qualities that we now take for granted when we think about Honest Abe. He even ghost-wrote the famous Bixby letter, which you might know as that voice-over that makes you cry at the end of Saving Private Ryan.

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The John Hay Says No to H2O

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As you may have heard and/or seen on Instagram, the John Hay Library is back and better than ever. Having undergone a transformation a la Kim Kardashian from ratchet sex tape to classy Kanye, the John Hay is now a library you’d truly want to take home to your parents. If anyone has ever dreamt of attending Hogwarts, this may be the closest you’ll get to the magical university without having to leave campus. There’s an awesome collection of Brown memorabilia (crappy iPhone picture below) and a few cozy study rooms, but the main attraction is the first-floor reading room. The majestic layout includes beautiful new tables, chic-yet-timeless desk lamps, and busts so detailed and stern they’ll intimidate you into actually getting your work done.

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But there’s a catch.

Naturally, one can assume that there is no food or beverage allowed inside of the reading room. Unfortunately, this includes water – THE ESSENCE OF BEAUTY. As an avid waterdrinker and someone who likes to spend long hours studying in the same location, this is extremely problematic. During my first Hay visit, I had to resort to hiding my bottle in my bag like a drunk hobo and taking secret sips every time I thought the coast was clear. You may think this is a touch dramatic, but those security guards are really, really good at their jobs.

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So, if you’re like me and want to enjoy the beauty and quietude of the reading room without turning into a human raisin, try one of these (not-yet-tested) tricks:

  • Wear a Camelback (just make sure you face the rear wall when sneaking sips).
  • Additionally, consider wearing that flask bra that is typically reserved for Spring Weekend.
  • Craft an extra long straw out of several smaller straws and leave one end in your H2O container of choice, hidden in your bag, of course.
  • Hide a water bottle behind the bust of John Hay and pretend to be studying the intricacies of his face, if caught.
  • Carve out the middle of a thick book, insert a flask and straw, and feign near-sightedness.
  • Make water shots by filling up empty film canisters or test tubes, and knock ’em back under the desk (especially believable if you’re a RISD student or chemistry concentrator).
  • Replace your reading glasses with these.
  • Relocate to one of the study rooms and quietly sulk about the fact that you’re not a camel.

For those of you who are brave enough to attempt these tactics, we’re looking forward to your feedback.

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