Campus & Community

Jane Cheng ’09: Preserving art, making it public, passing it on

5 min read

Talk about a grand entrance — on her first day of work at the Herzog August Bibliothek, the famed medieval studies library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, Jane Cheng ’09 powered up her laptop and promptly shorted out the entire reading room.

“I thought they were going to send me right back where I came from,” Cheng recalled with a laugh. “That’s pretty typical of me — I’m a total klutz.”

Electronic mishaps aside, “klutz” is the last word that comes to mind when describing this gracious, soft-spoken history of art and architecture concentrator from Cincinnati. An extraordinarily talented book and graphic artist, Cheng’s passion for books has led her to libraries across Europe and deep into the collections at Harvard.

Cheng has been interested in texts and images since an early age. Her mother, who was trained as a bookbinder, writes and illustrates children’s books. As a young girl, Cheng made suggestions to improve both text and images.

“I spent my childhood editing her stories,” Cheng said. “That gave me a sense of books as something you do, not just something you absorb.”

Cheng’s mother also taught her bookbinding. In high school, Cheng began working as a book artist and expanded her repertoire to include photography and freelance graphic design. Those activities helped Cheng forge an identity in a difficult world.

“Cincinnati is … poor and split racially, and my high school was very segregated,” Cheng said. “I was always in between, not easily able to find my place.”

Cheng’s mother is Jewish and Hungarian; her father is Chinese.

“People we didn’t know well never believed I was my mom’s daughter,” she said. “Kids at school would say things like, ‘You’re not Jewish.’ I would think, ‘Wait a minute — who would know that, me or you?’”

Literature allowed Cheng to find characters whose worries “stood in solidarity” with her own.

“Reading opened the world,” Cheng said.

Upon acceptance to Harvard, Cheng applied to work for the Weissman Preservation Center (WPC) in the Harvard University Library, which provides conservation services for rare and special collections. She has been working there since the first day of college.

“My mentors at the WPC have been wonderful,” Cheng said.

In her freshman year, Cheng also began working with Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture. She took his freshman seminar on medieval manuscripts, which first opened her eyes to the generosity of Harvard professors.

“Our class became so close, thanks to him,” Cheng said. “He took us on a trip to New York; he brought us to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We even went out for celebratory dinners.”

Fascinated by medieval texts, Cheng chose to pursue an independent study on manuscript culture, also led by Hamburger.

“That was my first introduction to theories of how you think about books … paradigms for speaking about text and image,” she said.

The summer following freshman year, Cheng headed to a state archive in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, with the support of the Harvard College Research Program (HCRP). She developed and designed a bilingual visitors’ guide, featuring documents that told the story of the archive’s rich collections.

Following her sophomore year, Cheng traveled to Wolfenbüttel, where she had a fulfilling summer working for the curator of manuscripts. Cheng even had the chance to work with the earliest known manuscript of the “Imitatio Christi,” a Christian medieval text by Thomas à Kempis and one of the best-selling books of all time. After junior year, Cheng went to Nîmes, France, to work for a private conservator affiliated with the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Cheng credits her professors with making those experiences possible.

“They have been overwhelmingly generous to me,” she said, “… writing letters on my behalf, and in general helping me pursue the most important questions of a liberal arts education.”

Cheng has given back a fair bit, too. Her senior thesis, written about copies of the “Imitatio Christi” in Houghton Library, helped to shed light on a previously unstudied collection.

“Harvard has the largest collection of ‘Imitatio Christi’ books in the world,” said Cheng. “I was stunned when I first saw them. There were just gazillions there on the shelves, most of which were strikingly miniature. Yet no one had worked on them.”

Cheng evaluated the “kaleidoscopic diversity” of the collection to explore how changes in the presentation of the text participated in the transformation of Christian meaning from the early Renaissance through the Counter-Reformation. Her investigations resulted in an exhibit, “Imitation as Innovation,” currently on display at the Houghton Library, the first student-curated exhibit there.

Cheng is confident she will continue working in the arts. She may pursue graphic design, conservation, or a budding interest in museum outreach and education.

“I am not yet sure what path I’ll choose,” she said, “but I know I want to be part of the process by which art is preserved, made public, and passed on.”