Unexpected opportunity for a cataloguer: exhibiting Arthur

This week sees the ‘unveiling’ of an exhibition in SCOLAR our special collections department on the subject of Arthur: King of the Britons.  I’m really excited about it because I have had an integral part in the curating of it.  This is one of those ‘unexpected opportunities’ that I didn’t actually manage to talk about in my presentation at the CILIP CIG conference on 11th September because I over ran and had to skip it!

The opportunity came about for two reasons.  Firstly, my job now involves working on the Cardiff Rare Books Collection one day a week, alongside our Rare books cataloguer.  I was familiar with the collection anyway, due to taking part in the listing of material prior to acquisition from the public library.  Secondly, over the last couple of years I’ve taken a few evening classes with the University’s adult education department, purely because they sounded really interesting (one of which was on Arthurian myths and legends). In conversation with the tutor, Dr Juliette Wood, I’ve mentioned at times to her various items in the collection prior to them being catalogued, because I thought she would find them interesting or useful for her teaching and/or research.   She has a book coming out this autumn on the holy grail, and one way or another we decided it would be really great to have an exhibition on Arthurian material, and the head of SCOLAR agreed that we could do so.  SCOLAR has about four exhibitions a year, sometimes tying in with anniversaries or topics of current interest.

Arthur in the centre of his roundtable (from Malory, 1634)

Stage 1: We met up in SCOLAR to discuss what kind of themes we would focus on, and what kind of items we wanted to use.  I had identified some items that I thought might be relevant, and made a list based on our catalogue.  For me, one of our prize exhibits was going to be the 1634 copy of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.  Produced by the London printer William Stansby (1572-1638) this version was based on the earlier editions by Wynken de Worde and William Caxton, and was the only edition available for two hundred years.

Juliette was able to suggest a whole host of authors, and books, that might be of interest.  Working with a specialist in the subject was really interesting, as she has such depth to her knowledge.  Yes, I could have pulled out lots of books about Arthur, but I wouldn’t have known any of the intricacies, the historical foibles, or the really pertinent texts to use.

Part way through setting up

Stage 2: Using my scribbled notes from the discussion with Juliette I was able to search our library catalogue and identify a further list of items of interest.  Next time we met up I had retrieved a large selection of items from the collection.  Using paper slips to indicated the seven themes we had decided upon (we had seven cases to fill) we were able to go through items and add them to our proposed cases.  Throughout this process we were trying to be aware of what would be visually appealing.  A book might be a key text but if it has no illustrations and a modern binding it risks being of little interest to the majority of observers.  Luckily we had a wealth of material to choose from in SCOLAR and could mine various collections within it such as the Cardiff Rare Books collection, the Tennyson collection, and the Salisbury collection etc.  At times we had almost too much to choose from and also had to be wary of being repetitive and not include too many examples by the same illustrator for example.

Part of the ‘Arthur and local archaeology’ case

Stage 3:  I wrote up a list of all the items we had chosen, assigned to their particular themes, and ensured I included full details of each book, especially classmark and location, in order to make it easier to retrieve them when we wanted them.

Stage 4: We met again to look at all the items and to doublecheck which illustrations, or pages, we would be displaying.  At this point we also chose a key image for each theme/case which would be used on the SCOLAR website, and I scanned these illustrations.

Stage 5:  Juliette took responsibility for writing all the captions – so I was let off the hook at this point! As she had the expert knowledge it made sense for her to do so.

Stage 6: With some proofreading and tweaking from all parties the captions were ready, and thanks to Alison Harvey, the archivist in SCOLAR who is used to curating the exhibitions and helping others do so, they were set up in text boxes that were the correct size for the plastic caption displayers.  Thus ensuring a unifying harmony in the display.

Arthur doll amidst ephemera

Stage 7: The setting up!  I don’t think either of us was quite prepared for how difficult or challenging we found this stage (even though we realised it wouldn’t be easy).  I’d expected this to be one of the fun bits (although I’ve enjoyed all stages); and it was fun and satisfying  but needed quite a bit of thinking too, as you can’t just plonk the items down randomly in the cases.  We had to assess how all the items in each case would relate to one another.  We also had to ensure that the books were displayed in a manner that wouldn’t damage them; some were more fragile than others.  We had a variety of foam wedges, snake weights, and plastic stands – but there were several occasions when we didn’t have quite the right size or type of stand that would have been ideal, so we had to be inventive!  In all, it took us about 4 1/2 hours to set up the seven cases and to do a bit of tweaking after asking the opinions of Alison and Ken (the rare books cataloguer).  Its really quite thrilling to see an exhibition come together in the flesh, after all the preparatory work.

Guinevere figurine

The exhibition will be running up to December and can be viewed 9-5 during the week; you can also see an extract on the SCOLAR webpages.  The books used are predominantly from Cardiff special collections, although Juliette supplemented the display with a few items, including some ephemera from her own collection.  Hence, we also have a lovely Arthur doll and an exquisite Guinevere!

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1 Comment

Filed under Exhibitions, Librarianship, Uncategorized

One response to “Unexpected opportunity for a cataloguer: exhibiting Arthur

  1. Reblogged this on Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) Casgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau and commented:
    Karen Pierce has written about her experience of curating our new Special Collections and Archives exhibition on “King Arthur in Britain”.

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