Monday, June 2, 2014

Curating an exhibition: All Things Bright and Beautiful

For this year’s annual Commemoration weekend (4th-6th April), we decided to create an exhibition of our special collections that was a bit out of the ordinary. Newnham’s special collections don’t just hold early editions of texts, but all manner of eye-catching drawings, prints, illustrations and watercolours, so we decided to put a selection on display on the theme ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Here’s how we went about creating it from start to finish.

Finding inspiration:

Where do you start with roughly 6000 volumes to choose from and only 3 display cases? In the past few months, we’ve been (slowly, but surely!) taking a stock check of special collections. Going through the entire stock one by one gives you the chance to remind yourself of what’s in the collection and what condition items are in (and whether they’re too delicate to display), and is therefore the perfect opportunity to start a mental list of any interesting items that could potentially come together to make an exhibition. 

We have a huge variety of material, predominantly because our special collections are almost entirely made up of donations from alumnae or supporters of the college.  Many of the older colleges’ special collections reflect the history of the library’s original stock from the 16th century and/or the syllabi that students followed. But since Newnham was only founded in 1871, our rare books were donated from all sorts of benefactors with all sorts of interests, so are incredibly diverse.

As we were going around the shelves, I was inspired not by a particular topic or subject matter, but instead began to notice that we had all sorts of interesting visual material: not just books that had beautiful exteriors, but those that contained hand-drawn illustrations, prints, watercolours, engraved plates, or even flowers pressed inside them. In the past few years, the library has curated exhibitions that focused on books’ textual content or provenance, such as 2013’s Literary Connections exhibition. However, I thought it would be nice to do something a bit different, and decided to choose items that appealed to the senses… particularly because you rarely have the opportunity to see the beautiful images inside a book when they’re lined up on the shelf!

Choosing a theme:

The next step was to shape this pictorial material into a theme, as “Books we thought were pretty” isn’t going to win any prize’s for the world’s most inviting exhibition title! The majority of my inspiration came from when we were inspecting the natural sciences collection. We have a large collection of botanical illustrations including four volumes of beautiful hand-painted watercolours by Florence Strudwick (NC 1898), and a number of zoological illustrations, including some plates from Nodder and Shaw’s ‘Naturalist’s Miscellany’, which was published in instalments between 1789 and 1813, and contains the first scientific account of the duck-billed platypus. [1]

The first published illustration of a platypus, engraved and hand-coloured by Frederick Polydore Nodder,  1789

However, we also have a collection of coloured prints depicting the observation of the Northern Lights over Cambridge in 1847, as well as some gorgeous books and bindings in their own right, which I wanted to include. We didn’t want to narrow the exhibition down to solely zoology and botany, as it meant lots of interesting material would go unnoticed and the exhibition wouldn’t appeal to a wide range of people.

In the end, we settled on the title ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Not only did this give us scope to exhibit images from the natural world, but it allowed us to include some of the other objects in our collection which are visually stunning and have some amazing history.

Choosing the material:

The next task was to identify the sort of material we wanted to display. Although ‘all things bright and beautiful’ is a saying in its own right, I thought it would be nice to use the lines from the popular hymn written by Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848, to divide the display into smaller sections and to create a narrative for visitors.

The final sections we decided on were:

  • ‘All creatures great’: mammals (including human anatomy), reptiles and amphibians.
  • ‘… and small’: insects such as butterflies, beetles and bees, and sealife on the shelf below.
  • ‘The sunset and the morning, that brighten up the sky’: colour prints of the Northern Lights above Cambridge from 1847, and Mary Paley Marshall’s watercolours
  • ‘The ripe fruits in the garden’: a selection of fruit illustrations, and two Elizabethan gardening manuals in their original bindings.
  • ‘Each little flower that opens’: flowers and plants, including Florence Strudwick’s hand-drawn botanical illustrations.
  • ‘Each little bird that sings’: ornithology, ranging from parrots to magpies.
  • ‘All things wise and wonderful’: a collection of ‘herbals’ - a sort of medical textbook which described natural remedies and the uses and features of plants and flowers.

We collected a long-list of between 5-15 books for each category, aiming for a variety of material, from the Elizabethan era to the present day. Many of the titles we found were part of a series (a series of around 30 in some cases!) so it was important not to rely too much on one author or illustrator, beautiful as many of them were.


Assembling the exhibition

The main hurdle we overcame when it actually came to putting the material into the cases was that we had far too much of it! The bird section in particular had to be drastically rethought, because we had such a wide range of books to choose from, and a lot of them are too large to actually fit on the shelf. I had to sacrifice displaying some of the more flamboyant birds (the cockatoo didn’t make the cut, sadly) because I wanted to not only exhibit a range of species, but also a range of books from different eras, to see how the arts of illustration and printing had developed over the ages. A lot of our zoological collections date from the mid-to-late 1800’s, so I tried not to rely on them too heavily (the cockatoo was replaced by a peacock from 1789).

Another difficulty was choosing which page to actually open the book on. There are so many illustrations packed into one volume that often you wanted to display several from the same book, which of course isn’t possible! This was particularly tricky with Benjamin Maund’s The Fruitist, which contains 70 incredibly detailed hand-coloured engravings of fruits grown in British gardens in the early 1800’s, many of which are almost photographic in nature.

The Bellegarde Peach, taken from Benjamin Maund's The Fruitist: a treatise on orchard and garden fruits, 1852.

Once we’d decided upon a page, we used one of three methods to hold the books in place. The first is the most common, and widely used across libraries, archives and museum exhibitions. We use a type of clear strip made out of archival quality polyester, which is non-acidic and anti-static, so it doesn’t draw dust towards the paper. A length of this strip is wrapped around each half of the book, and fastened at the back with a small piece of double sided tape. 

For heavier or more delicate books, we use a foam support block or a polystyrene-filled pillow, which supports the end boards of the book and doesn’t put stress on the spine, which is often damaged in historic books. The final way of supporting a book is to lie it open with the help of a ‘snake weight’, which is a line of small weights sewn into a long tube of fabric, which are just heavy enough to hold the pages in place.

Once the books and loose pages were arranged in the display cabinets, the next stage was to write captions for all the material. Each caption provides the name of the author/artist, title, publication information and date for each book as the bare minimum, as well as a small description or history of the item and the individual who donated the piece, where possible. I really enjoyed researching and writing the back story for each artefact – when it came to the college, who it had been owned by, and why it was of special significance as a rare book. Of particular interest were the captions for Mary Paley Marshall’s watercolours of Guernsey, and Florence Strudwick’s botanical drawings. Both women studied at Newnham within the first 30 years of it being founded and it’s incredible to think that they walked through the same gardens and slept in the same rooms over 100 years ago, and yet their watercolours are still as vividly pigmented as if they were painted yesterday.

My favourite item, without doubt, however is our book of pressed flowers collected on an Arctic expedition in 1836, by Sir James Clark Ross. Granted, they are now a little brown around the edges (as is to be expected!), but to think that they have survived in one piece, with petals and leaves intact, for nearly 200 years after travelling back from the West coast of Greenland, is phenomenal, and certainly worth a look. 

Ross gifted the book to Lady Fanny Elliot (later Lady Fanny Russell, wife of Prime Minister John Russell) in 1837, and her daughter Lady Agatha Russell bequeathed it to the college in 1933.

Curating the exhibition has been one of my highlights of working at Newnham so far, and I’m really proud of the end result. We are so fortunate to have such a unique collection of primary resources in the library, and those on display really are just the tip of the iceberg. We have rare books in virtually every subject you can think of, and curating them into an exhibition took a lot of time and effort, but was really enjoyable. I could spend all day looking through our collections and never get bored!
The exhibition is still on display in the library and is open to all students, staff and alumnae visiting the college. A few items (including the Arctic flowers) have been temporarily removed because of potential damage from sunlight, but please do ask staff if you’d like to see them, and we will try to arrange something. Even if you study a completely different subject, they are fascinating objects to look at up close, and it makes a great revision break if you’re currently revising in the library! 

Meriel Royal

Graduate Trainee 2013-2014

[1] Natural History Museum. Taxonomy of the Platypus. 

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