Indigenous Cultures at the Library: Kislak Family Foundation Gives $10 Million for New Gallery

An artist’s sketh of part of the new Kislak exhibition.

The Kislak Family Foundation is donating $10 million to create a new exhibition at the Library that will share a fuller history of the early Americas, featuring the Jay I. Kislak Collection of artifacts, paintings, maps, rare books and documents, the Library announced today. The new Kislak Gallery will be part of a reimagined visitor experience at the national library in the years ahead.

The gift will both develop the exhibition gallery and establish a permanent endowment for its maintence and renewal over time.  The announcement of this major gift was announced on the 125th birthday of the Library’s historic Thomas Jefferson Building.

“The Kislak Family Foundation continues to be such a special partner to the Library of Congress in telling the magnificent story of our world,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “With this generous gift, we are honored to continue Jay Kislak’s legacy through this newly renovated gallery that thoughtfully shares with visitors the rich and complex histories of those who came before us.”

“Voices of the Early Americas: The Jay I. Kislak Collection” is slated to open in 2024. The exhibition will explore both the history of the Native cultures of the Americas before and after European colonization.  Curators aim to show how complicated this story is, how Native American cultures were violently conquered, sometimes enslaved, and how vibrant they are today. This deep past continues to inspire many people, including modern artists, writers and poets, whose works will also be featured.

“My father wanted this collection to live on well beyond his own time at the finest institution in the world,” said Paula Kislak, chair of the Kislak Family Foundation. “By reimagining how this unparalleled resource informs and inspires the American people, the Library of Congress will ensure that his vision comes to fruition for future generations. We are pleased to make this gift to the Library of Congress.”

In 2004, Kislak first donated nearly 4,000 items from his collection to the Library. Select pieces from the collection were featured in a previous exhibition. These included rare masterpieces of Indigenous art, maps, manuscripts and cultural treasures documenting more than a dozen Native cultures and the earliest history of the Americas.

The new exhibition will provide a fuller narrative and chronology to tell the story in an immersive and informative new gallery. It will display more items from the Kislak collection as well, with some artifacts dating back some 3,000 years. Many objects will be displayed for the first time through a state-of-the-art, transparent artifact wall. The exhibition also will incorporate select items from other Library collections, mixing in textiles, rare books, manuscripts, photography, and other artistic works. These will put the Kislak collection in context and provide visitors with a comprehensive view of the profound impact of these early civilizations.

An artist’s sketch of the Kislak exhition.

“‘Voices of the Early Americas’ will give voice to the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas,” said John Hessler, the exhibition curator. “It is my hope that our visitors will have a different idea of the history of the early Americas after they explore this gallery. A central theme will examine how the  Americas we know today grew out of a polyphony of voices – a mixing of Indigenous, African and European cultures.”

An external advisory committee of scholars and curators will help shape the exhibition’s development. Ralph Appelbaum Associates is designing the exhibition.

The Library is committed to observing legal and ethical standards in acquiring and displaying cultural artifacts. Kislak acquired many of the pieces between 1981 and 2003. He donated his collection to the Library  in 2004 so that the public might better appreciate the history and cultures of the civilizations in the ancient and early Americas.

Each object that will be on display has a significant story to communicate to current and future generations about the craftspeople, painters, potters and metalworkers who produced them.

The gallery is part of the Library’s plan to build “A Library for You,” transforming the experience of its nearly 2 million annual visitors, sharing more of its treasures with the public and showing how Library collections connect with visitors’ own creativity and research.

The Kislak gift will build on the significant investments of Congress and private philanthropy in the Library’s infrastructure, exhibitions and programs, all delivering on the Library’s commitment to open its doors wider to all people everywhere. In 2020, philanthropist David Rubenstein announced a lead gift of $10 million to support the visitor experience plan. Congress has appropriated $40 million as part of this public-private partnership.


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