Behind the Scenes: Mercy Quintos Procaccini, Exhibits Coordinator, Special Collections Library

August 22, 2008

At an institution as large as U.Va., it’s easy to forget that it consists of many individually moving parts. We may take for granted the roughly 13,500 employees who keep the whole operation humming every day. Who, for instance, keeps all the UTS buses on the road? Who watches what students eat? Who flies critically injured patients to the hospital? The fall issue of U.Va. Magazine highlights nine such employees -- a few of the small pictures that make up U.Va.’s big picture.

In anticipation of the new academic year, UVA Today will in the coming days publish excerpts of the profiles, which were written by Sierra Bellows, Michelle Cuevas and Paul Evans.

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Her office in Alderman Library is a bibliophile’s dream, crowded with a 1,200-volume Civil War-era collection from a prominent Virginia family. Perched on her desk is a figurine of Edgar Allan Poe. He’s there to prod her, because even while "On the Map," a display of historic cartography now fills the Special Collections exhibit space, Mercy Quintos Procaccini (Col ’94) is already preparing for next year’s bicentennial of Poe’s birth. "One real challenge of the job is that there’s always more to show and say than we ever can. But the great joy of this position is the sheer variety of its challenges," says Quintos Procaccini, a 19th century American history major.

Balancing historical accuracy and aesthetic appeal, the exhibits she presents are both time and labor intensive. "We typically plan about two years out, although much of the work is concentrated in the seven or so months immediately before opening," she explains. "An entire team is involved, from exhibit curators, designers and installers to library staff working in Special Collections or Web development or digital services to faculty serving as advisers. It can take nearly 20 people."

The work is complex. "I’d have to say that planning the exhibitions for the opening of the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections in fall 2004 was the most challenging so far," she says. "It meant planning three simultaneous exhibitions—from ‘American Journeys’ and its 300 highlights from Special Collections to ‘Declaring Independence to Flowerdew Hundred.’"

The library’s mainstay exhibit, "Declaring Independence," showcases the Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence Collection, which features one of only 25 extant broadsides published on July 5, 1776, as well as letters and documents representing all 56 signers. "We had to come up with a custom, high-security display case to house the Declaration of Independence broadside, and produce the documentary film that plays in the exhibition. Plus, every exhibition has its own related brochures and publications," she says.

"Flowerdew Hundred," a tour of one the earliest James River plantations, shows the library’s proclivity for exhibits that make the most of Commonwealth resources, while "The Firebird and the Factory: Modern Russian Children’s Books" reveals the range that Quintos Procaccini aims to achieve.

Now eight years on the job, Quintos Procaccini says she is passionate about making literary and cultural heritage relevant, especially in the digital age. "There’s just something incredibly exciting about sharing the experience of original artifacts," she says. "Again and again at these exhibits, people have ‘Aha!’ moments of realization, of seeing the past from a fresh perspective."

Along with the Poe commemoration, she’s gearing up for another 2009 exhibit showcasing Old Cabell Hall, Cocke Hall and Rouss Hall—buildings by the Beaux Arts architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. It’s the kind of display she relishes, one that "makes the most of Special Collections, draws connections between various disciplines and places history in context in ways that can really engage viewers."

Photo by Peggy Harrison