Wednesday 10 March 2010

On a forthcoming exhibition

A correspondent, having noticed February bloglessness, asks if I am still alive. Yes, but a combination of travelling and deadline has kept me out of the blogosphere for a while. The reason for the deadline is interesting, though, and readers of this blog might like an early alert to a forthcoming exciting event.

The British Library is presenting its first English language exhibition later this year. It will run from mid-November to early April. In fact, I don't know of any similar exhibition anywhere else in the world. This seems to be a genuine first.

'Similar' is the operative word. How could anything be 'similar' to the BL? I've been helping to curate the exhibition, and am putting together the book which will accompany it (hence the deadline), and one of the amazing perks has been the chance to go deep inside the Library, visiting areas that one normally never gets a chance to see. And seeing at first hand what an extraordinary collection it houses. The collections in the lower floor strongrooms seem to go on for ever - boxes, books, and box files of all shapes and sizes containing most of what you've ever heard of in British literary history.

It became surreal after a while. What did I think should be in the exhibition and the book? I reflected on all the major literary and linguistic moments in the history of the English language, such as the ones I talk about in The Stories of English - Beowulf, Aelfric's Colloquy, Caxton, Chaucer, Paston letters, Tyndale, First Folio... - and they are all there. I prepare a wish-list with one of the brilliant BL staff, and he makes arrangements for a visit to the relevant collection. There I meet the curator, who seems to know where everything is. 'You don't also happen to have...?' 'Oh yes that's over here somewhere...' and he is there unerringly. Moreover, he is able to take me through an old text with an awareness that saves huge amounts of time. Many early manuscripts have been bound into huge volumes, and he knows exactly where the particular text I'm interested in (such as the medieval poem 'The Owl and the Nightingale') is located. He also makes suggestions about pages of particular interest - pages which, as far as I know, have never been seen in public before. Several of these will be in the exhibition and the book.

Curators love a challenge. See a First Folio of Shakespeare? Bo-ring. A first edition of Caxton? Oh come on, ask me something difficult. All right, then, the unique copy of Tyndale's fragmentary bible, the one that survived the fires that burned all the others? That required a journey into the huge middle tower of the BL containing the King's Library (of George III), which is what visitors to the library see in front of them when they enter the building. But it was there, fragile, silent, open to view. I like to think I have molecules of some of these books on my hands still. I don't want to wash them off.

It's not just the famous items that are of interest, of course. The BL has amazing collections of ephemera, such as the Evanion collection of 19th century posters and advertisements. People sometimes forget that these are just as important, as a guide to linguistic history, as are the classical works of literature. They also have great collections of regional and world literary history, and, with such topics as dialects and global English important themes of the exhibition, it was important to explore some of those resources too.

The BL doesn't have everything. Cawdrey's 1604 Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, is in the Bodleian at Oxford. But it will be borrowed to be a part of this exhibition. In some cases, though, borrowing isn't possible. The Exeter Book, which contains so much Anglo-Saxon material, has to remain safely in Exeter. But at least I'll be able to use a photograph of a page in the book. And a good-sized picture, too. That's the point of the book, to provide full-colour large illustrations of these iconic works, so that they can be read and used in a practical way by those wanting to really read them, or to study them as part of a course in the history of the language. I never saw pictures of most of the texts I was studying, when I was an undergraduate. Just the occasional black-and-white example, or a thumbnail size picture. I could only imagine what an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle really looked like. Or all the faces of the Franks Casket. Or a Paston letter. Things can be different today. There'll be an online presence too, whose character is still being decided.

English language scholars, students, and enthusiasts - which means most people - will be indebted to the British Library for its initiative in developing this exhibition. Yet I understand the Library is soon going to suffer from the same crazy preoccupation with cuts that is devastating the universities right now. Staff are going to go and services chopped. Any government that allows this to happen to a library service of such huge public significance has, to my mind, undoubtedly lost its way.


tytania said...

I'll put this date on my agenda!
thank you!

Michael Wolf said...

It sounds like a worthy project.

The closest I can think of is the Museu da Língua Portuguesa, in São Paolo. But, as you say, it probably isn't all that similar, for a whole host of reasons.

DC said...

I've discussed the various language museum projects in an earlier post. This is very different, in that it is not a separate museum not is it permanent.

Michael Dodson said...

This sounds great. I only wished I didn't live in the US. How would I find the previous post about the language museum projects?

Will Stewart said...

Amazing - from over here, a very sunny South Africa, the exhibition calls to me! I look forward to the book.

DC said...

Best reference for some museological projects is actually an article in Museum International

DC said...

Oh, and also this one, in a recent issue of English Today

DC said...

A correspondent has written to ask if the BL has put some of these texts online. They are slowly doing so, often using the amazing page-turning technology. You can see examples on the BL website. But nothing on screen matches the visual experience of seeing the books and manuscripts live. For example, the size of the texts - sometimes tiny, sometimes huge - is a feature that never comes across well on screen.

DC said...

Someone else has written to ask if the book will be available other than at the BL. Yes, it will be distributed through all the usual channels.