Meet the participants!

In only two days we start our programme, Research in Translation, with our first workshop at the Museum Collections Centre in Nechells, Birmingham. It does not seem that long ago when the idea was just a small germinating seed… now we are ready to welcome our participants and get thinking about public engagement. But before the first workshop we would like you to meet some of our participants in a series of blog posts. First up, Cynthia Johnston….

‘Isn’t what you do a bit precious?’; Medieval Books and Public Engagement

I submitted my PhD dissertation in July of this year, and as I write I am anxiously awaiting my viva on 2nd October. I am a medievalist by trade, originally working on fourteenth-century literature, but eventually transferring my study to the physical books themselves. I have an MSt in Medieval Studies from Oxford University and my AHRC-funded doctorate was undertaken at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. I wrote on the development of penwork decoration to books in England from 1180 to 1280, the crucible for the commercial book. My supervisor was Professor Michelle Brown. I am currently the Course Tutor for the MA in the History of the Book at IES, SAS.

When I tell people outside of the field of Medieval Studies what I do, they uniformly comment on the subject’s obscurity. This reaction seems to imply the irrelevance of this study outside of academia. Someone recently asked me if what I did wasn’t a ‘bit precious’. This question sums up the difficulty in explaining the relevance, beauty and fascination of medieval manuscripts without resorting to the visual. All medieval books are fascinating, for what they say and how they are illustrated and illuminated. For the modern general audience they also carry problems in interpretation with regard to language and subject matter. The British Library blog does an admirable job of treading the line between presenting medieval books as amusing artifacts and important works of art. This light-hearted approach is possibly less appropriate for exhibition as the value of the book as a cultural and art historical object is interrogated by its selection for display. The traditional way of displaying medieval manuscripts in glass cases, further removes them from the world of the observer. These books cannot be touched nor their pages turned. They become the inverse of their original intent as objects to be used, often on a day-to-day basis, by ordinary people.

Last year I organized an AHRC-funded exhibition of ten manuscripts and early printed books from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery at Senate House Library at the University of London with a team of graduate students from three different institutions: Sarah J. Biggs from the Courtauld Institute and the British Library, Tony Harris from Cambridge and Courtnay Konshuh from Winchester. We used traditional display methods of perplex glass cases with interpretive captions, along with two large display banners with background information on the collector, R.E. Hart, a rope-maker, and the late nineteenth-century passion for collecting. We also produced a traditional catalogue as well as a blog (http://blackhartbooks.wordpress.com) along with a dedicated twitter account. The project concluded with a one-day conference. While we felt that we succeeded in raising the profile of the collection, as well as highlighting the difficulties of caring for collections like this in understaffed and underfunded museums, I felt that the essence of the books themselves was almost impossible to communicate. This exhibition was intended for an academic audience but the books have an immense amount to tell outside of that specialist context.

Following on from this experience, I am currently co-curating with Dr Jack Hartnell of the Courtauld an exhibition for 2 Temple Place in London that will tell the stories of ten collectors from the Industrial Northwest. This show will highlight collections from three museums of Pennine Lancashire: Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Towneley Hall in Burnley and the Haworth Museum and Art Gallery in Accrington. Collections of books, coins, Japanese prints, icons, ivories, taxidermied birds, preserved beetles, book illustrations and Tiffany glass as well as undisplayed Turner watercolours and prints by Millais and Landseer will be displayed along with ‘the Cloud Man’, a 12th century Peruvian mummy. These eclectic collections have much to say not only about the objects themselves but also about the men who assembled them and their motivations for doing so. We would like to present these collections to a national and international audience without making them overly ‘precious’ although many of these items are indeed priceless. Regardless of their status with regard to value or rarity, these items were part of people’s lives, and they were handled and poured over by those who collected them. This is the essence of what we would like to communicate perhaps using non-traditional methods.

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The Blackburn Psalter (Oxford? c. 1260-80) and a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours, from the R.E. Hart collection at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. ( MS Hart 21001 and 20932)

Learning about the approaches those in different fields from a variety of institutions take to engaging the public with their research will help to resolve my own conundrums. I am searching for innovative ways to use contemporary media and cutting-edge display formats to demonstrate the relevance and delight to be found in the medieval book. If the ideal way to communicate the unique quality of the medieval book is to place it in one’s hands, perhaps there is a way to replicate this experience for the general public. Public institutions hold most collections of medieval manuscripts and in that way they are the property of us all. To me this is the essence of public engagement with these objects. Its central contradiction being that these books that have survived centuries of use and abuse from water, worms and candle wax are now suspended in cyber-states whereby they can only be handled by experts, while they belong to every one of us.

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