Civil Rights photography at the Penn Libraries

Six Penn Art Collection images by photographer Bruce Davidson are on view through May 20 in a new ‘alcove’ gallery.

Brittany Merriam and Lynn Dolby standing in hallway in Libraries looking at photographs on wall
Lynn Smith Dolby (right), director of the Penn Art Collection, and Brittany Merriam (left), director of exhibits for the Libraries, created a partnership for 'alcove' exhibitions in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. 

A new collaboration between the Penn Art Collection and the Penn Libraries has mounted its first exhibition in what is being called the “alcove” gallery on the fifth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. “Time of Change: Civil Rights Photography of Bruce Davidson” is on view through May 20.

The six photographs featured are among 35 donated to the Penn Art Collection in 2019 by Tamir Bloom, a 1994 graduate, and his wife, Leah Bloom, avid collectors of Davidson’s work, says Lynn Smith Dolby, director of the Penn Art Collection.

Bruce Davidson, now 90 and still working with Magnum Photos, actively participated in civil rights rides and marches from 1961 to 1965, resulting in his “Time of Change” series. He went from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, with the Freedom Riders, documenting their experiences as they challenged segregation in the interstate bus system in the South.

“Some of these images may feel familiar to us because we have seen them over the years, but thinking of the time, these photographs were really revolutionary,” and capture an important era in American history, Dolby says. “His photography focuses on the very personal human experiences of these moments.”

An “immersive photographer,” Davidson called himself “an outsider on the inside, not just documenting but really participating in this movement,” Dolby says. A few of the Davidson images from the Penn Art Collection have been included in Arthur Ross Gallery exhibitions, she says, but this is the first on campus that features his civil rights era photographs together. The images include people on a bus, at a protest, at a lunch counter, and at the 1963 March on Washington.


The idea to feature works from the Penn Art Collection in an exhibition started with Brittany Merriam, director of exhibits for the Libraries. A set of inkjet prints used to be on the white walls in the hallway outside the Conservation Lab on the fifth floor of Van-Pelt. When they were taken down, Merriam asked to meet with Dolby to discuss the possibilities for the space.

“We looked at this collection of photographs, and I was sold right away because they are beautiful and powerful,” says Merriam, who created the exhibition layout and graphics.

Photography and other works on paper are challenging to exhibit because they are sensitive to light and changes in temperature and humidity, even when protected with UV-light-blocking plexiglass, Dolby says. “They are perfectly suited for these mini exhibitions that might not fill a whole gallery but are an important on their own,” she says.

The Libraries has artworks permanently on display from the Penn Art Collection including the sculpture “Bridges” by Roberto Lugo and the tapestry “Fields of Transformation” by Claudy Jongstra. The Goldstein Family Gallery on Van Pelt’s sixth floor and in the cases in the first-floor main hallway feature rotating exhibitions primarily of works from the Libraries’ collections, Merriam says.

Dolby has been searching the campus for places to feature small exhibitions of pieces from the Penn Art Collection. Having the artworks in unexpected places, like outside the elevators on Van Pelt’s fifth floor, “can maybe jolt you out of your everyday and make you see something a bit differently,” she says. “Hopefully this is the beginning of an exhibition here every semester.”

two people looking at the Time of Change photo exhibition
The exhibition is on view through May 20, 2024.