Be-Virtued,—Be-Pictured,—Be-Butterflied, and Be-Fiddled
The first volume of Tristram Shandy contains a bit of object-worship that I’ve been thinking about since the Research in Translation workshop. Uncle Toby obsessively inspects his map of Namur, and in the process the boundary between person and object dissolves:
The more my uncle Toby pored over his map, the more he took a liking to it!—by the same process and electrical assimilation, as I told you, thro’ which I ween the souls of connoisseurs themselves, by long friction and incumbition, have the happiness, at length, to get all be-virtued,—be-pictured,—be-butterflied, and be-fiddled.
I love this passage as an entry-point to thinking about Research in Translation for a number of reasons. First, Laurence Sterne’s miscellany of pictures, butterflies, and fiddles reminds me of the store room at the Museum Collections Centre in Birmingham, where every cabinet is stuffed with a different object of virtue not currently on display in the main museums or gallery: from stuffed domestic longhair cats to 1960s nylon pantyhose to Ancient Egyptian shabti figures.
Second, Sterne’s focus on the connoisseur’s relationship to objects seems the opposite of the norms of museum interpretation and translation that we learned about in Birmingham: the requirement that descriptions should assume museum visitors have a reading age of twelve, for example. What would a museum for connoisseurs—a museum that favoured idiosyncrasy, arcana, and personal obsession in its descriptions—look like? (Perhaps like a materialized and inhabitable version of an academic journal? Perish the thought.)
But this passage from Tristram Shandy also conveys something broader about what I realised at Research in Translation. In short, I hadn’t quite understood how be-virtued and be-butterflied my own soul had become: not as a connoisseur but as a scholar. I came to Research in Translation thinking exclusively about objects—about what things I might show in our final exhibition and how they would look. Midway through the workshop, I started to think more about ideas.
As an academic, my focus is on how books—often thought of principally as carriers for ideas—are things, too. I explore this subject using low-status items: not illuminated manuscripts or artists’ books, which also of course make a similar point, but novelty and movable books for children, which are sniffed at even by scholars sympathetic to children’s literature and popular culture. I’m interested in the cultural discomfort associated with novelty books, and by association with the idea that, even when we do think about books as objects, we prefer them to be a certain sort of object.
And so I’d initially thought about exhibiting some of the items I studied for my DPhil as part of Research in Translation. These items are rare, fragile, and of considerable general interest. I’ve tried this before: I suggested a Victorian movable book for the Bodleian Library’s exhibition of children’s books in summer 2013, for example. Novelty books for children certainly introduce interesting challenges to an exhibition. They often rely on gimmicks—on movement, as the description movable book would suggest. The exhibition visitor cannot fully grasp the physical workings of the book without seeing it move, and so the best way to display them might be ‘in the flesh’ while at the same time using interactive graphics (perhaps displayed alongside or even overlaid or projected onto the material book).
I’m still interested in finding strategies for exhibiting such objects, but our two days in Birmingham gave me other ideas (rather than other objects) to consider. How, for instance, could we use an exhibition display to convey the importance of the miniature in children’s literature? The preoccupation with and manipulation of scale in children’s literature is well-known. It’s what leads to, for example, the Borrowers repurposing postage-stamps as paintings, or children in Rumer Godden’s doll-stories using Japanese pencil-boxes as doll’s-house cupboards. Indeed, in his book Feeling like a Kid (Johns Hopkins, 2006), the children’s literature critic Jerry Griswold identifies smallness as one of five characteristic themes that persist across children’s literature. (The others, charmingly, are snugness, scariness, lightness, and aliveness.) Quite a bit of my published work relates to dolls and doll’s-houses, both as depicted within books and as packaged alongside them, so scale and the child (reader) are research interests of mine.
The touch tables we used at the Digital Prototyping Hall at the University of Birmingham made me think about scale and the object in new ways. By marvellous—indeed, almost alchemical—multi-angle photography, touch tables can zoom in on the details of even the smallest objects. (We looked at examples of greatly magnified treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard.) But such cutting-edge technology might also offer new ways of thinking about the size of material objects. A fellow delegate mentioned seeing children try to enlarge a picture in a book by ‘pinching out’ with thumb and index figure, as they could on a touchscreen. A fresh example, I thought, of the association between children, media, and issues of scale and perspective.
So how, then, can I make an exhibition display that starts from ideas rather than individual objects—from ideas about how and why scale, material objects, and childhood are important to one another? How can I convey these ideas in a way that’s not just coherent, but also visually arresting and (dreams are free) delightful? And what is the place of the hopelessly ‘be-virtued,—be-pictured,—be-butterflied, and be-fiddled’ soul in the contemporary exhibition space? Suggestions welcome.
Bio: Hannah Field is a lecturer in English literature at the University of Lincoln. She has published various articles concerning the intersections between literary and material culture, on topics including Regency-era paper dolls, Dickens’s use of toys, and the cherry-coloured coat in Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. She is currently revising her doctoral thesis on Victorian novelty books for children (recently completed at the University of Oxford) into a book. She is from Aotearoa New Zealand.