April 25, 2008 — Frankenstein's monster may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
You'll have an opportunity to change your thinking starting Sunday, April 27, with the opening of a new exhibition in the Dome Room of the Rotunda called "The Monster Among Us: 'Frankenstein' from Mary Shelley to Mel Brooks." The exhibition traces the evolution of the novel from its anonymous London publication in 1818 to its present position as a symbol of the potential — and dangers — of modern science.
The curator of the exhibition is fourth-year student Shannon Gorman. She drew on the extensive Frankenstein collection owned by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, a local writer and teacher who began collecting Frankenstein memorabilia after she taught the novel to an engineering class 20 years ago and began taking note of the many appearances of this modern myth in literary and popular culture.
In December, Gorman submitted the winning proposal in a competition for the Frankenstein exhibition curatorship, which was open to students in a history course taught by U.Va. professor Terry Belanger.
The competition was organized by Rare Book School, a U.Va.-based institute directed by Belanger that supports the study of the history of books and printing. U.Va.'s program of exhibitions with undergraduate curators is unique in the United States.
"Big book exhibitions usually take years to research, assemble and mount," Belanger said. "In exhibition terms, undergraduates are mayflies. They aren't around long enough to make doing big shows easy." Gorman has spent most of the past five months putting the show together.
"The Monster Among Us" documents various reactions to Mary Shelley's story: not only printed editions in cloth and paper, but also Frankenstein comic books, Frankenstein movies (and stills and posters), Frankenstein masks and clothing, Frankenstein dishware – even Frankenstein breakfast cereal. The exhibition explores how the monster has interacted with American culture over the past century and more.
On view are images by everyone from Lyn Ward to the Wachowski Brothers, movie stills from "Bride of Frankenstein" and "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell," Frankenstein dolls ¬and much more. While the interpretations of the creature are very different, they tell the same story: that of our love affair with an ogre.
Shelley's novel only gradually became ubiquitous. Movies played a major part in making Frankenstein a household word. When the name is mentioned, most people think of Boris Karloff, with his bolted forehead and outstretched arms. He created the role in the 1931 Universal film directed by James Whale. Karloff's presence throughout the evolution of the story is evident in the Rotunda exhibition. From images on mass-market paperbacks to postage stamps to a make-it-yourself Frankenstein doll kit, Karloff's visual traits have persisted throughout the years.
Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" provides much of the more recent imagery of the monster in popular culture. From the publicity accompanying the 1974 movie to the Web site for the musical currently running on Broadway, "Young Frankenstein" is the best-known recent version of this story.
Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are often confused, fueled by the fact that Shelley never actually named her creation. She calls him "monster," "creature," "fiend," "daemon," "wretch," "devil," "being" and "ogre." Most of us just call him "Frankenstein."
Hitchcock, the owner of most of the items on display in the Rotunda, is the author of the recent "Frankenstein: A Cultural History," published last year by W. W. Norton.
"At first, I began collecting Frankenstein stuff casually," she said. "But then, as I realized the extent to which the creature had permeated different facets of our public life, my collecting gained a frenzy."
Gorman said, "I couldn't have done [the exhibit] without Susan Hitchcock's help. I had to learn the history of 'Frankenstein' well enough that I could tell it in this special way. I hope that Mr. Jefferson would have approved of my show. After all, the Rotunda is an external symbol of a constant quest for knowledge, and 'Frankenstein' is a story about seeking and finding knowledge."
The exhibition will have an audience-participation element, Gorman said. "Part of the exhibition will be a collage of pictures of the monster drawn by Charlottesville community members, and we're inviting all those present on Sunday to be our first contributors to this work in progress."
Gorman will give gallery tours on April 27 between 3 and 5 p.m., and Hitchcock will join her from 5 to 6. The exhibition will remain through the end of October; admission is free. The Rotunda is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.