Remembering Christina G. Huemer (1947-2010), AAR Drue Heinz Librarian Emerita

The Trustees, Fellows and Staff of the American Academy in Rome mourn the loss of Christina G. Huemer, beloved Drue Heinz Librarian Emerita, and spirited leader of the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library for fifteen years (1993-2008).

Chris Huemer died November 12 at her home in Amagansett NY after a long illness. The thousands of artists and scholars touched by her learning, creativity and curiosity will remember her forever. A memorial service will be held in in New York City in early 2011.

There are countless things for which to remember Chris Huemer, as the testimonies collected below in this article will suggest. She was not just a brilliant librarian and leader, the undisputed expert on the history of both the American Academy and of the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, editor of two volumes, and a whole lot more, ranging from a gifted percussionist with gamelan ensembles in New York and Rome, to an expert navigator (she earned a skipper’s license and fit in effortlessly with the sailing crowd at Fiumicino).

Shortly after returning from Rome to Amagansett, Chris—an avid singer—joined the Choral Society of the Hamptons. Learning of her professional background, reported the East Hampton Star, the board of directors quickly sought her out and elected her secretary.

But the spectacular renovation of the Academy’s Library and its furnishings, which Chris started planning in 1999 with its re-inauguration as the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library coming almost precisely three years ago today (22 November 2007), may remain the most tangible of her many achievements.

In foreground in the Library’s Arthur Ross Reading Room (22 November 2007), from left: Drue Heinz Librarian Christina Huemer, Mrs. Janet C. Ross, AAR Assistant Director for Properties Cristina Puglisi. Photo: Antonio Puzzutiello

This was a massive project, that required the brave decision to close the Library for more than a year (July 2006-November 2007), with books sent to an off-site storage facility in Settebagni, north of Rome, so that work on the interior could continue to the very foundations, if need be.

In progress (2006), renovations for the Library’s Arthur Ross Reading Room.

Here is Chris on the project in her own words (as interviewed in the SOF News, Autumn 2007), at the same time spelling out her vision of an American Academy Library: “[W]e are sometimes asked why we are doing this at all. We don’t lack for answers—compliance with new code requirements, more space for books, more space for readers, better preservation conditions, new and restored furniture—these are all needs that have become increasingly critical….However, at the same time, we realize that our efforts are anomalous, that all around us other libraries are scaling back or investing more heavily in electronic resources instead of in bricks and mortar.”

“Libraries everywhere are in transition—moving ahead as best they can on two tracks, acquiring both digital and analog materials: electronic texts and images alongside of old-fashioned books and journals. There has been much talk on how libraries can ‘compete’ with information hubs such as Google and personalized services such as MySpace. I recently attended a conference at which almost everything we do every day was dismissed as ‘legacy activities’ (translation: books, journals, cataloging and reference services) and at which the presumption was that we may still be helping our generation, but the next generation will bypass libraries altogether, indeed is already doing so.”

“So I cannot help wondering: Will the next generation of Academy fellows appreciate our newly renovated library, with its restored wooden alcoves full of old-fashioned books and its new compact storage full of old-fashioned periodicals? I think they will, but only if we keep the broader context in mind. Our libraries represent the study of the humanities, in which old and new live happily side by side, and in which critical judgment, peer review, and the selective sifting of information still count for something.”

“Our library may be a refuge, but it is also part of a network of libraries in Rome and in the United States that allows us to share resources and to coordinate our collections and services. This year, alongside the renovation, we have taken other steps toward the future with the adoption of a new catalog software…and improvements in our access to full-text databases…The next step is for our library to become a more active participant in shaping the future of research in the humanities.”

Chris Huemer offers first look at restored basement level of Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library. Photo: Antonio Puzzutiello

Christina Huemer was educated at Mount Holyoke College (AB’69), and held a MLS from Columbia and a MA in art history from Cornell University. Before leading the Library of the American Academy in Rome, Chris amassed an exceptionally wide range of experience in the field of art librarianship. That included service at Cornell (1970-1975), the Art Index (1975-1976), Oberlin College (1975-1976), Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University (1980-1985), and in Rome as Assistant Librarian at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (=ICCROM, 1985-1987). Then from 1988-1992 Chris was the Editor, Italian Office, of the Bibliography of the History of Art, a pioneering research database then based at the Clark Art Institute and now centered at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Writes Kitty Chibnik of the Avery Library in a general appreciation of what she calls Chris’ “glorious career”, “Christina was an extremely talented art librarian skilled in both public service and technical service, an enthusiastic scholar with diverse interests, and a wonderful friend and mentor. She was an inspiration to many of us in the field and will be greatly missed.”

Christina G. Huemer in November 2007. Photo: Antonio Puzzutiello.

“The first things that come to mind when one thinks about Chris”, adds Pina Pasquantonio, AAR Assistant Director for Operations, “is her lively, inquisitive mind and her indomitable spirit. She loved life and accepted its challenges. Her open and curious mind was always looking for new paths to travel on and her interests were never confined to her areas of expertise.”

Continues Pina, “I remember vividly when she obtained her nautical license or when she would talk about research she was doing on genealogy.  Her quest for knowledge was never-ending. I have fond memories of our morning walks in the Villa Pamphilj and her passion for the turtles that inhabited the pond.  She loved her cats, she loved to sing, and she loved to play games and beat her opponents!  Chris never complained about her health, fighting her battle with cancer with great courage and thus setting a wonderful example for us all.  She will be deeply missed.”

Chris Huemer authored the definitive brief treatment of the history of the AAR Library (in the International Dictionary of Library Histories, 2001), and in 2005 alone saw the publication of two volumes she edited: Spellbound by Rome: the Anglo-American Community in Rome, 1890-1914, and the Founding of the Keats-Shelley House (Palombi Editori); and (with Pierluigi Petrobelli) Remembering Oliver Strunk, Teacher and Scholar (Pendragon Press).

Chris Huemer leading AAR walk in the Non-Catholic Cemetery, 15 April 2010. Photo: Corey Brennan

“To walk the Protestant Cemetery with Chris Huemer was one of Rome’s greatest treats”, says AAR Mellon Professor Corey Brennan FAAR’88. “She had an unparalleled grasp of the history of prominent Americans abroad in Rome. And there was no one better at bringing it all alive, with erudition, wit, and an expert eye for the really telling anecdotes. She was peerless on the history of the Academy itself, and compiled a bibliography on the subject that would keep a small team of scholars going for a few decades. Well into this year Chris read at pencilpoint any note, article or manuscript on AAR history you would send to her, and gently corrected with genuine grace even the real howlers. Chris was completely on top of whatever digital technology was the latest, and had lots of sage advice on how to excavate the remotest bits of the Academy’s past from web-based resources. A typically valuable observation on finding forgotten AAR items : ‘they’re a bit hard to find using the institutional names but if you search unusual names like subject=Frothingham they pop right out!’ I don’t know how what we are going to do without Chris Huemer.”

Reopening the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library, 22 November 2007. From left, Mrs. Janet C. Ross, AAR Drue Heinz Librarian Christina Huemer, AAR Director Carmela Vircillo Franklin (FAAR’85, RAAR’02), AAR Chair of Board of Trustees David M. Childs. Photo: Antonio Puzzutiello.

At the Academy’s Patricia H. Labalme Friends of the Library annual lecture in New York on 15 November, a many members of the AAR extended community shared written remembrances of Christina Huemer, including Elizabeth Bartman (FAAR’83, RAAR’09), former Director Carmela Vircillo Franklin (FAAR’85, RAAR’02), Bryan Fuermann, Meisha Hunter (FAAR’07), Carol F. Lewine, Diane H. Lewis (FAAR’77), Trustee Nancy O’Boyle, Trustee John Pinto (FAAR’75, RAAR’06) and Meg Pinto, and NYPL General Counsel Robert J. Vanni. A characteristic contribution is that of AAR Visiting Scholar (2009-2010) Nancy Austin, who is researching the first decades of the AAR’s School of Fine Arts: “I will never forget the openness and sharing with which Christine embraced me in conversation about the Academy’s history. I will keep her spirit close to me as I work to finish what she discussed with me. It was a gift to know her.”

Closer to home in Rome, Cynthia Rockwell also remembers Chris: “Some years ago, Peter [Rockwell] and I had supper with her when she was staying at the AAR in the Chiaraviglio. Though she rarely spoke about her illness, she confided that there were three things she wanted to accomplish before she died: outlive her mother; see the library renovation through to completion; and I’ve forgotten the third thing—probably a writing project. She certainly managed the first two and no doubt the third, as well.”

“Another facet to remember”, says Cynthia, “is her hand-drawn Christmas cards—scenes of Rome, Fiumicino, Long Island or other places she’d been. We always enjoyed those. Then there was her historical expertise, including the Academy itself and the non-Catholic Cemetery. [Plus] writing the catalogue and curating the Spellbound by Rome exhibition, which was held at four venues: the AAR, St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen, and the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. She once organized a reunion in Rome for her Mount Holyoke class, which was a lot of work. She was a demon at jig-saw puzzles and had an unusual approach: after doing the frame, she’d put isolated pieces in their exact location, getting the coordinates from the box. It worked for her, but not for me!”

After AAR Library ribbon cutting 22 November 2007. Photo: Antonio Puzzutiello

From Antonio Palladino, AAR Rare Books and Preservation Assistant: “Almeno la metà di quel che sono professionalmente lo devo a te. A mio giudizio hai incarnato il vero spirito del principio di democrazia; sempre laboriosa, collaborativa, curiosa, pronta al dialogo ed al confronto, ed, al bisogno, al fianco del personale. Con te mi sono sentito parte integrante della biblioteca. Ora mi mancherai ancora di più. Ciao Cris. Requiescas in pace.”

In September 2010 the Board of Trustees of the Academy voted to install a plaque in the Library’s reading room on the southwest corner of the ground floor of the renovated library in gratitude to Christina Huemer, and also decided to start a new concert series in Italy, to be known as the Christina Huemer Concerts at the American Academy in Rome, favoring especially choral music.

Born 24 May 1947, in Orange NJ to Kathleen W. (née Watt) and Joseph W. Huemer, Chris Huemer lived in Rome for more than two decades before moving to Amagansett NY two years ago. She is survived by a sister, Francesca Huemer Kelly of Bethesda MD; a brother, David R. Huemer of New Jersey; and six nieces and nephews.

We welcome your personal reminiscences of Christina Huemer on this webpage; you can send your written contributions here. Before proceeding to additional notes, perhaps one can pause for a moment to reflect on this passage chosen for Chris by Antonio Palladino, from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria Book II:

Non sempre la violetta resta in fiore o schiuso il giglio,

rimane rigida solo la spina là dove sfiorì la rosa.

Bianchi saranno tra poco i tuoi capelli;

sul viso verranno le rughe a scavarti la faccia.

Allora tu, rafforza lo spirito che non invecchia;

ogni tua grazia fai così più salda:

solo il tuo spirito reggerà fino all’ultimo giorno.

Sia tua cura coltivare la mente con le arti.

Christina G. Huemer at the Villa Aurelia in November 2007. Photo: Antonio Puzzutiello.

Pamela Hovland FAAR’06 writes:

“During my 6-month fellowship in design, my family and I had the pleasure of living next door to Chris on the third floor of the Chiaraviglio. Chris always left her door ajar while she was home and as a result, her collection of cats became frequent visitors in our apartment, much to my son’s delight. But that open door also meant that whenever I heard spirited conversation emanating from the living room, I was welcome to enter—and even join—the competitive Scrabble games that often took place there. These were intense sessions among an ever-changing collection of people (Italian friends, AAR colleagues, Fellows, fellow travelers and visiting scholars) who were passionate about language and erudition. Led by Chris and perhaps fueled by prosecco, they were also a group that laughed and laughed until the last tile was placed on the board and a winner was declared. Until next time.”

From Elisabeth Giansiracusa and John H. Forrester:

“Chris was a fabulous friend to both of us for over twenty years and a special “aunt” to our children, Eve and Simon. We’ll miss her steady, intelligent gaze through those blue, blue eyes, her infectious laugh, our shared readings, dinners at her places near the Academy and in Fiumicino, at our apartment on Monte Mario, and later down at the Academy, after-dinner games of “nomi, cose, e citta’” and scrabble, invitations to her gamelan concerts, emails since her move back to the US, and more.”

“We first met when we all moved to Rome from Florence where she and I had crossed paths at the Villa I Tatti. We were both researchers—she on the RILA database, me with the then-director, Louise George Clubb, and our friendship grew through common interests while she was at the Academy. She was a great supporter of my anarchic habits, always generous with referrals to Academy fellows whom I helped behind the scenes on translations and research. And she could talk libraries no end with my librarian-turned-IT specialist husband.”

“Our children loved her as “the Singing Chris”—no need to elaborate on why; she had hoped to make a trip to with us to Ethiopia, birthplace of our children, but the Fates intervened before she could. She was generous to a fault, loved her family immensely, and followed her nieces and nephews with care. We imagine her doing her crossword puzzles, reading her books, singing, and doing her drawings in the Elysian Fields…Buon viaggio, Chris!”

“The following is our choice for Chris— to capture a life well-lived, but cut short too soon: Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard).”

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