‘Humanities are the antidote’: With endowment, Art History/Classics Library builds bridges across time, space, politics

Alan Templeton
Alan Templeton says a childhood visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid changed his life: He fell in love with art and later made it his career. Templeton has set up an endowment for the UC Berkeley’s Art History/Classics Library. (Photo by Violet Carter for the UC Berkeley Library)

He was 12 years old when epiphany struck.

Alan Templeton was sitting in the library of his middle school, flipping through a history book on Rome, when, all of a sudden, he was not.

“I was just sitting at this very mundane desk in Richmond, and I felt like I was being transported back to ancient Rome,” Templeton recalls. “That’s when it really hit me — that libraries are the way that anyone in our society can become part of a larger world.

“And I realized how powerful that was.”

So began his lifelong love affair with libraries and fascination with stories of civilizations past. Now an art collector and exhibition curator, Templeton recently gifted UC Berkeley’s Art History/Classics Library an endowment for its fine arts collection, allowing the library to support journeys to other worlds and perspectives for decades to come.

For Templeton, it’s a mission that feels more important than ever.

“Done correctly, the humanities are the antidote to our very divided society,” he says. “Why are we here?

“If the tech moguls had taken more humanities classes, they would be explaining themselves a whole lot better.”

The Art History library
Students John Wein, left, and Emily Mullin study in the Art History/Classics Library. (Photo by Cade Johnson for the UC Berkeley Library)

‘The crown jewel’

Templeton grew up in El Cerrito, the son of two physical chemists at Cal. He remembers the moment he first fell in love with art, too: on a trip with his family when he was 8, whisked around the historic cities and museums of Europe. “That first visit to the Prado Museum (in Madrid) changed my life,” he says.

At 15, Templeton got himself a membership to Berkeley’s University Art Museum (now the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA). Around that time, he started bopping around San Francisco, taking BART and Muni to the Legion of Honor and de Young Museum on solo trips after school.

“So much of what we learn in school is abstract,” Templeton says. “Art, visual art, is a physical manifestation, a physical thing you can approach that brings history to life.”

“Art is not abstract,” he says. “It’s real.”

Over the past couple of decades, Templeton has churned that passion into art exhibits, curating shows around Northern California. Throughout his work, the Art History/Classics Library has been essential, he says.

“This is hands down the leading public art library in Northern California, so it does a tremendous amount of service,” Templeton says. “This is the crown jewel for art history research.”

In 2002, Templeton curated an exhibit for the Crocker Art Museum, in Sacramento, on William Hogarth, an acclaimed 18th-century English artist — his first show that relied heavily on the library. After studying the library’s voluminous collection of periodicals, including The Burlington Magazine and Apollo, Templeton was able to draw surprising connections between Hogarth and other artists, ultimately centering the exhibit on French and Italian artists’ influence on Hogarth.

“I was only able to take the show so far because of this library,” he says. “Without that access, the exhibit would have been a shadow of what I did.”

Lynn Cunningham

Perched on the third floor of Doe Library, the Art History/Classics Library supports teaching and scholarship in fields across the humanities — including art history, art practice, ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology, and all major subfields of classics. The collections also support research in new media, visual culture, film studies, architecture, history, and philosophy, among other disciplines.

With nearly 200,000 volumes, the fine arts collection represents art from around the globe. Materials cover all time periods, from prehistoric to contemporary.

The gift from Templeton, a $250,000 endowment, will mainly support the library’s collection on European art history. The funds will make a “significant difference in building the fine arts collection at Berkeley,” says art librarian Lynn Cunningham — a boon for students, and scholars everywhere who rely on its resources.

Humanities, the healer

For Templeton, the endowment is a tribute to the next generation of humanists — and to his hope for a more understanding world.

Indeed, it is by studying — and questioning — the legacies of European culture that students will be able to better understand the “turbulent historical moment” of today, art history professor Henrike Lange says.

“Studying the productive and creative forces of human beings, while also acknowledging and analyzing malign forces and events in history, can promote understanding and conciliation across time and space,” Lange says, adding that her students will directly benefit from the collection boost. “The library is crucial for my students in their encounters with premodern history and its artifacts, connecting them more palpably and immediately to authors, scribes, illustrators, and the long chain of other readers throughout the generations and different places transnationally.”


And as part of a public institution, the library invites deep dives not just by those at Berkeley, but the public at large, Lange says — a “great and noble responsibility.”

A core part of the Art History/Classics Library’s identity is its service for graduate students. Students take classes in the library’s seminar rooms, surrounded by leading scholarship in their fields. All graduate students in ancient Greek and Roman studies, ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology, and art history are also entitled to personal bookends on the library’s desks, where they can store and consult materials throughout their studies.

“Most of what is in these rooms is not online,” says Jeremy Ott, classics and Germanic studies librarian. “When you rely on physical materials to the extent that these students do, being across the hall from course reserve shelves, down the hall from the most important reference material, together with essential monographs and journals, while learning under the guidance of your professor — that kind of access is special, and is integral to the development of students as scholars.”

Beyond physical resources, the library — and the impossibly vast cultural landscape it represents — holds another resource for the young scholar: the more intangible lesson of “how to learn, and how to think,” Ott says. Even at the undergraduate level, he notes, research in the humanities requires great flexibility and focus — the ability to hold contrasting, sometimes contradictory, information in one’s head and, somehow, carve out a path to the truth.

Jeremy Ott

“Knowing how to use a database, that is important,” Ott says. “But even more important is: Why did I choose to go to that database? Why did I use this evidence and choose to skip other evidence?

“Through what prisms am I looking at this information?” he continues. “Those are lifelong skills.”

Ott gives the hypothetical example of a classics scholar wanting to learn more about a Mediterranean region from, say, the sixth century A.D. An ancient author might have recorded a devastating earthquake or other calamities, while archaeological evidence from the area might indicate some degree of stability and even flashes of prosperity. The quest for the scholar is: How do you reconcile the two?

“How do we approach the surviving archaeological remains, which might include objects from everyday life, burials, monumental architecture, or other kinds of evidence, and what do we make of the gaps in that record?” Ott says. “What comparative material, from nearby areas or from other periods, is useful to consider? How do we interpret ancient texts, and how do we understand their places within their own genres of writing, and the knowledge and agendas of their authors?

“You have to take all of this together.”

For Templeton, it’s a challenge that extends from antiquity to today, as differences of opinion drive society ever further apart. Ultimately, if the humanities transported Templeton to new lands as a child, today he hopes they can form bridges right here at home.

“The humanities force you to have empathy for other points of view,” he says. “There’s not just one take on what’s going on — you have to look at the subject or problem from many different sides.”