It’s like a mirage that sprouted in the middle of Southern California. The Huntington Library is nestled in the heart of the city of San Marino and almost seems too good to be true in the native desert landscape. It’s home to beautiful lush outdoor gardens and home to an extraordinary collection of one of the finest historic works of literature and art.
The 120-acre institution includes botanical gardens, an extensive art collection focusing on 19th century European Art, 17th to mid-20th century American Art and one of the largest and most complete research libraries in the United states. The library holds about 6 million items and over 400,000 rare books. Some highlights include the Gutenburg Bible, letters and manuscripts by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Abranaham Lincoln, and a number of originally published works of Shakespeare.
It is one of the top institutions in the world for the study of the history of science and technology. Some of the best known pieces from the fine arts collections include the Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence, Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt, and The Long Leg by Edward Hopper. Going through the main Library exhibit was an especially amazing experience for us, as it is not a common experience to witness literary works of art. The dimly lit and studious atmosphere of the building did require a lot more self-restraint from the littles ones, but they were definitely engaged by the beautifully curated rooms and exhibits. My daughter especially loved the science and technology wing which had interactive audio exhibits which served as imaginary telephones and the magnifying glasses and telescopes which revealed a secret world of wonder under each glass lens.
The Japanese garden is probably my personal favorite garden out of over 10 different gardens in the grounds. It features the Moon bridge, a traditional ceremonial teahouse (Seifu-an), mini bamboo forests, ponds with lively Koi fish and a beautiful Bonsai collection. The landscape is truly picturesque as the entire scene unfolds as you walk towards the valley of the garden. The koi ponds, fully furnished Japanese house, and bonsai garden is especially exciting for the kids. After all, miniature trees and forests are the stuff of fairytales.
However, walking up and down the hilly terrain and taking in the breathtaking views are even more impressive, even for the young ones as it is such an otherworldly beauty. My kids also loved to run through the small bamboo forest sections, commenting on “Kung Fu Panda” references. The Chinese Garden “Liu Fang Yuan” is a close second to favorite gardens in this museum. Walking along the large lake through the Chinese architecture throughout is almost like walking through a time capsule of ancient aristocratic Chinese society. There are rocks from Lake Tai placed around the waters’ edge which work in harmony with the native Californian oak trees which surrounds the area. The Chinese garden is like “a scroll painting, presenting a series of carefully composed scenes.” The jewel in this area is definitely the Tea House, which features Ming-style décor with a tea and food menu with traditional Chinese entrees.
There were many families enjoying their meals in the airy semi enclosed space. My kids immediately sat down at the tables and made themselves at home. Since we were not eating anything we coaxed them to move outward, but next time we will definitely make a meal time out of it.
The current Alex Israel exhibit is amazing. I am a sucker for modern art being juxtaposed in a traditional setting. This LA based artist brings LA’s “cult of celebrity” scene in art form into the historic Huntington Art Gallery. It’s quite interesting, since the Huntingtons were essential in the growth and prosperity of Southern California, how one could imagine the family adding these to their collection in modern times. The LA inspired artwork is invading the European Art and architecture space as if it’s staking it’s ground on the property, although at the same time it seamlessly belongs. The works empower and enhance the existing artwork - case in point, the Untitled by Houdon’s Diana Chasseresse is remarkable.
The Children’s garden is more interactive and aims to introduce kids to the wonders of the natural world through all the senses. Exhibits include the Sonic Pool experiencing vibrations in water, wandering through prism tunnels, playing with magnetic sand, and even creating music with pebbles and sand. The Library also offers a large variety of special programs for families and youth all year round. Huntington Explorers is an all-day summer for kids to investigate gardens and artworks with classroom education. Other programs include “Mini Chefs at Art” where garden goods are brought to the table, and “Energy in Nature” which is a scientific program using light and sound energy to create musical instruments. There are also amazing opportunities for higher education learners with Huntington U which offers collegiate level seminars taught by professors in six-week courses. Also available are bi-monthly family workshops and pre-school programs. It’s amazing how this non-profit organization is so dedicated to the community.
The passion is apparent in each corner of the facility. It’s so much fun to see kids engaged and experience gorgeous natural surroundings. Southern California is lucky to have not only a museum housing great works of literature, art and grounds with astonishing gardens but more importantly a long lasting legacy of its great patrons.