All that jazz: BYU library unveils new Roaring ’20s exhibit

An authentic flapper dress from the HBLL Historic Clothing Collection anchors the exhibit. The 1920s were marked by radical changes in gender issues, transportation, media and morality. (Emma Everett)

BYU students who may have heard the faint strains of a jazz band in the atrium of the Harold B. Lee Library have already had a small taste of the library’s new exhibit: The Roar of the ’20s in Utah County. 

The multimedia exhibit, set to run until April, is located at the north end of the library’s third floor. It showcases film reels, books, photographs, music and clothing popular in Utah County during the 1920s.

A mint green flapper dress shimmers in one corner, and clips from Cecil B. DeMille’s films flicker in the other. “You’ve got to see it in person to see how majestic this is,'” exhibits manager Eric Howard said he heard a student say.

Maggie Gallup Kopp, Ben Harry and John Murphy, curators in the HBLL’s Special Collections department, submitted their proposal for the display in 2018, almost five years ago.

“It’s been a hundred years, and I was thinking about the 1920s. We have some great collections, and it seemed like a great opportunity to show those collections off,” Kopp, a rare book specialist, said. “The point of this exhibit is to make people aware of different collections, things that are available for students to work with.”

In researching and curating the displayed items, Harry found startling parallels between our shared past and present, despite the century separating them. “There were wars, there was a pandemic, there were racial issues. There’s an echo going on, things are still resonating today,” he said.

The 1920s considered the “first modern decade,” was a historical hinge-point for Utahns, who were exposed to national trends in an unprecedented way through radio, film and improved transportation, Harry said.

Murphy acknowledges the impact of outside influences on the culture and people of the Wasatch Front, but emphasizes the significant contributions Utahns made to the national culture. 

“John Held, Jr., who was an extraordinarily talented and gifted designer, was from Salt Lake,” Murphy said. “He largely defined the iconography of the 1920s. He shaped a whole fashion ethos that influenced the entire United States.”

Murphy said he hopes students will identify with Held and other young talents featured in the exhibit. “A BYU football player can identify with Jack Dempsey, or a student studying acting can identify with Edwina Booth, and realize that they have something in common with people who lived a long time ago,” Murphy said.

The exhibit’s student designers said they also appreciate when their peers take advantage of the opportunity to visit the space they’ve created.

“Sometimes I wonder, does anybody care about this stuff? You have to show up to class, but no one has to show up to our exhibits. It’s great when you see people in the exhibit, enjoying what we do,” Ashley West said.

West, a BYU senior, said she has contributed to upwards of 20 exhibits at the library throughout her undergraduate experience. 

For the first time with Roar of the ’20s, she designed a unique wallpaper, drawing inspiration from Art Deco styles and century-old illustrations. “Usually what we do is start by making a mood board, putting together images that set the tone,” West said.

From there, she said, work moves at a fast pace. The HBLL exhibits team lends color, shape and texture to the curator’s original vision.

The Harold B. Lee Library exhibits team works year-round to design and construct unique feature exhibits. To celebrate another successful semester, they had a lunchtime fiesta in their office space. From left to right: Eric Howard, Ashley West, Amy Ottinger. (Emma Everett)

According to Howard, “The Roaring 20s exhibit was accomplished in record time, designing and producing in seven weeks what normally takes us 10 to 12 weeks.”

Howard and West are joined by sophomore animation student Amy Ottinger on the exhibits team. “The library has so many cool things that most people don’t know about,” Ottinger said. “We get to share just a little bit about all these different topics.”

Through their design choices, academic material from Special Collections is made simpler and more accessible for a general audience, Ottinger said.

To her point, West added, “In a sense, we’re the middle man. There are the students, and there’s the people with all the cool stuff, and we help the students know about all of the stuff.”

The exhibits team exposes the BYU community to “cool stuff” year-round, designing and constructing three major projects each year, in addition to many smaller projects and design consulting services, Howard said. The third-floor alcove alone features two themed exhibits a year and is one of the more frequented display areas in the library.

Howard said the gallery often serves as a rendezvous for young couples. No matter how a student ends up there, though, “exhibits make them aware of some of the things in our collections that are just mind-boggling.”

In Howard’s opinion, he said the current exhibit is one of the best his team has produced.

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