Library considers hosting Berrigan exhibit

Fri, 11/18/2016 - 11:00am

A clarification by Island Free Library Board of Trustees member Gloria Redlich triggered an impassioned discussion about the library potentially hosting an exhibit next summer featuring the life and work of Father Daniel Berrigan. Berrigan, a controversial figure who passed at the age of 94 this year, was an author, Jesuit priest, and anti-war activist. He was arrested by FBI agents on Block Island in 1970 for his role in burning draft records in Catonsville, Maryland in May of 1968.

A synopsis furnished by the library states that the exhibit would center on the Aug. 11, 1970 arrest of Daniel Berrigan at the Block Island home of William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne. The exhibit, titled "Seeking Shelter from the Storm," will explore the personalities, writings, and faith-based activism of Berrigan, Stringfellow, and Towne, and detail their relationship to the island, the place and the community.

Redlich said the minutes from the Oct. 13 meeting should indicate that the board supported the library’s hosting of the Berrigan exhibit and was in the process of gathering more information. Library Director Kristin Baumann said that she met with exhibit curator Ken Yellis regarding the project, which would be funded by grants and premiere at the library next summer before being featured in other venues around the state.

After the board’s Clerk, Heidi Tarbox, said Redlich’s interpretation wasn’t what she remembered from the discussion, a lengthy debate ensued before Tarbox agreed to adjust the minutes to more accurately reflect the board’s sentiment regarding the project.  

In pushing for the board to back the program, Redlich said the Berrigan exhibit is a piece of history that is “relevant to the island, and the state.” She noted that the Block Island Historical Society declined to provide a venue for the exhibit. 

“That’s when controversy regarding the project started,” she said.

New board member, Dave Sniffen, asked Baumann to explain to the board the controversy.

“It’s about Daniel Berrigan and his activism as a priest, and how he was connected to the island, and sought refuge here, more than once, during his activist years,” said Baumann, referencing his protest of the Vietnam War. She also noted that the library wants to be careful in not setting a “precedent that the board is always supporting programs.”

“To add to that, I was approached by Amy Jaffe and Anne Tichner, who are working with Ken [Yellis], and their emphasis was very much on that Berrigan and the island have a history that overlaps, and simply that we’re presenting a piece of history,” said Redlich, who noted that “Berrigan’s obituary was on the front page of The New York Times.”

“We hope the library is a place where people come to learn about history," said Baumann. "We hope the library is a place where we can offer information. If you want to absorb it, great. We just invite people to look at this information. It’s not our stance. It’s not an editorial piece. It’s none of those things.”

“There are a lot of books in here that support evolution, and Christianity,” said Sniffen. “Basically, you’re not looking for approval, as much as you’re seeking support.”

“That’s it,” said Redlich.

“I think that it’s appropriate that we do this,” said Baumann, “considering the material and the connection we have to this project. He has secured the Brown Library to hold the exhibit, and is also discussing it with Salve Regina. But I thought that it was important that it starts here.”

“It sounds like a great idea,” said Sniffen.

The board voted unanimously to approve of Redlich’s clarification of the minutes to reflect the board’s sentiment.

In response to the board's interest in the project, Yellis told The Block Island Times that "It's a great idea. Block Island should be the exhibit's first venue. Block Island is at the center of the story." Yellis learned of the project from seasonal Block Island resident Dennis O'Toole, who is the project's manager and director. "It's about these men: Berrigan, Stringfellow and Towne, and their activism, and how they came to the island to retreat from the world, and also be a part of the Block Island community."

Yellis, who is a member of the Newport World Heritage Commission, said that while the project is in development, the exhibit would be a good fit for the Island Free Library and contain "visual material, three-dimensional objects" and "some good imagery. It will have to be different, and vary place to place. The space we create with this exhibit will allow people to reflect, read, converse and explore the subject."

Yellis said that the project raises the question: "Can you oppose what your country does, and still be considered a patriot?" It will be designed to stimulate thought and discussion, while connecting the present to the past.

Yellis told The Times that the project will need to be funded by different funding sources. "We received a grant for research support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities," he said, noting that he was hopeful that the project would debut this coming summer at the Island Free Library.  

In other news at the meeting, the Trustees welcomed new board members William Feuer and Sniffen to the library's Board of Trustees. The Trustees next meeting is Tuesday, Dec. 20 at 4 p.m.