WASHINGTON, DC — There has long been a cultural fascination with the desks of writers and artists, as if we, the common people, could learn something about how creativity works through the way a genius organizes her books, letters, pens, and typewriter — or leaves everything in disarray, complete with half-eaten plates of food and a mess of papers cascading to the ground.
On the fourth floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center, From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir plays on this allure of the writer’s desk, combining it brilliantly with an informal archive of the great feminist philosopher’s works, as well as those of her inspirations and the people influenced by her.
The exhibition consists of a single room with enlarged photographs of de Beauvoir’s Paris studio taken in March 1986 (a month before she died); a glass display case containing a handwritten 1948 manuscript that would later become part of de Beauvoir’s most well-known work, The Second Sex; a cork bulletin board for visitors to leave their thoughts; and, the highlight of the exhibition, a desk piled high and with drawers full of books and magazines — like a Niki de Saint Phalle catalogue, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 2, and, of course, many of de Beauvoir’s own writings.
Flanking the desk, a few very comfortable chairs invite visitors to sit and pick up, flip through, and read the books and magazines to their hearts’ content. A bookmark in each publication serves the function of traditional wall text, containing a paragraph that explains the relevance of the publication and dividing the works into three categories: “read by,” “written by,” and “inspired by” de Beauvoir. Finally, a museum that trusts its visitors enough to let them rifle through its archives!
The publications on display are a veritable goldmine of fascinating information — much like a carefully curated room at a public library. What I found most captivating were the magazines from the 1940s and 1950s, which contained articles written by and about de Beauvoir and provided an immersive peek into the past. For example, in a 1947 New Yorker, I read about de Beauvoir’s first and only visit to New York, Nazi art looting as a show of power (WWII had just ended two years prior), and a review of Steinbeck’s new novel, The Wayward Bus.
Leafing through a Saturday Review from 1953, an article titled “Six Experts Discuss The Second Sex” provided some of the earliest reactions to a book that would go on to become the seminal work of feminist theory. It was interesting to note that among these experts — an anthropologist (Margaret Mead, who thought de Beauvoir had some good points but was “too French” and too dismissive of anything positive about motherhood), a writer, a public official, a psychiatrist, an educator — there was also a “housewife”: none other than Phyllis McGinley, who would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. (The “writer” category was, of course, taken by a man — Philip Wylie, to be exact.)
Other magazines and journals, including Les Temps modernes (founded by de Beauvoir’s life partner and fellow philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre), Harper’s, and Marie Claire, were similarly expository time capsules in the sociology of their era, with discussions of feminism alongside articles and ads that would certainly be considered sexist today. Marie Claire — in the “read by” bookmark category — turned out to be particularly egregious, with its ads for cosmetic surgery and articles on the problem of the only child. (Ladies, please have more kids!)
So focused was I on devouring the books and magazines (mostly the magazines), I hardly noticed that two hours had flown past.
From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir is a uniquely brilliant exhibition, curated in a way that truly engages visitors and teaches us more about the subject than I would have thought possible in a museum setting. Magical things happen when museums trust their audiences to not only handle their materials but to delve into them however they like. (No more reading one page of a book carefully preserved behind glass!) In a time when museums are increasingly focused on new ways to engage audiences, from cocktail parties in galleries to overactive Instagram feeds, it’s refreshing that NMWA is confident enough in its visitors’ intelligence to provide us with unrestricted access to the most tried and true medium: the printed word.
From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir continues at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through June 2.