Curious Objects, Hidden Histories
The Cambridge University Library (UL) strikes fear into the heart of many a student. Students stumble through the endless shelves desperately trying to figure out the indexing system – and find the light switch. However, the UL need not be the source of such great anxiety. Holding close to 8 million items, and one of only 6 deposit libraries, the UL is an important British institution. Their most recent exhibition, ‘Curious Objects, Hidden Histories’, explores the diversity of the items held within the walls of the library, from the Stone Age to the Space Age.
Alongside the vast collection of books and manuscripts, the UL has accumulated various ‘curiosities’ over hundreds of years, ranging from two pre-dynastic Egyptian pots, to a box of hair samples sent to Charles Darwin. As Acting University Librarian Professor Christopher Young explained, the exhibition is about exploring history, not ‘through its printed and manuscript treasures, but through a cabinet of curiosities that opens a window onto the nature of collecting, private and institutional.’ What makes the hidden ‘histories’ so ‘curious’ is the way in which the multiple narratives interact and overlap.
Curator of the exhibition, Jill Whitelock explained why this particular exhibition was chosen. For the 600th anniversary of the library, alongside the ‘Lines of Thought’ exhibition earlier in the year, she believed it apt to curate an exhibition which could act as a vehicle through which the history of the library itself could be explored.
The history of the UL is considered through the changing nature of the collections over time, broadly grouped into the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1743, George Townshend presented a mummy to Conyers Middleton, chief librarian at the UL. The early collection subsequently expanded to include a diverse range of objects, such as coins, medals, portraits and prints.
Further objects came into the collection in the early 1800s, especially through Edward Daniel Clarke, librarian from 1817 and a noted collector. However, the nineteenth century saw the mass movement of objects and curiosities, a trend which was primarily the product of the creation of new museums at the university. The collection of marbles went to the Fitzwilliam museum, whilst some rhinoceros horns were transferred to the Museum of Comparative Anatomy. The nineteenth century therefore saw the role of the University Library transformed. Whilst some objects remained in the library, the proliferation of the new University museums saw the re-definition of spaces. The library was more clearly demarcated as the holder of books and manuscripts, with the new museums given priority over the storage and display of objects.
The newly acquired objects in the twentieth century were of a qualitatively different nature. The UL purchased the archives of the Royal Commonwealth Society in 1993, and the archives of the Society for Psychical Research were deposited in 1989. In contrast to the hodgepodge collections and cabinets which had fallen into the hands of the University Library in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the more modern collections were likely to arrive at the library as cohesive wholes.
The exhibition also uncovers the individual narratives of the collections, and their collectors, which found their way into the library throughout its history. This allows the exhibition to contrast the institutional with a more personal perspective. One prominent example is the collection of fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, plants and archaeological and ethnographic artefacts presented by John Woodward. His collection first shared space with the library collections, but in 1735 was moved to its own room at the north end of the Philosophy School underneath the library. In 1842 it was moved to the Cockerell room in the new Geological Museum, and went on to form the basis of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in 1904. Thus, the exhibition tells the story of not only the shifting role of the UL in public information, but also the differing roles of each individual collection throughout the same period. Woodward’s original collection served multiple functions in various exhibition spaces.
The exhibition not only explores the history of the UL, and the smaller collections within it, but also the history of individual objects. A good example of this can be found in Dr. Catherine Cooke’s collection of Soviet postcards and ephemeral material. As a whole, this collection embodies an overarching narrative: one of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and its presentation through commercial products and popular ephemera. However, taken individually these objects also hold their own narratives.
The postcards in Cooke’s collection each tell an exceedingly personal narrative. Spanning from pre-Soviet postcards from specific locations, like Moscow and Crimea, to Soviet cards of Leningrad’s Narva Gate, each card is not only a product of the particular historical context in which it was produced, but also tells the story of those who were sending and receiving the cards. Most of them have been used and the original messages are still legible. In this sense, this new exhibition shares some similarities with the recent ‘Treasured Possessions’ exhibition at the Fitzwilliam museum; a collection of objects which once served a very personal purpose as ‘treasured possessions’.
Furthermore, when we take each object individually, we are shown the absence of a clear dichotomy between ‘objects’ that were held in the library and the ‘books’. Books took on a physical significance themselves in the way that they were bound and displayed. The physical significance of books, for example, is explored through the Book of Psalms and New Testament from 1633, and its ‘back-to-back binding’.
The new exhibition at the UL serves as an excellent demonstration of the power of objects in storytelling. The narratives contained within this exhibition are multi-layered and in constant interaction with each other. As curator Jill Whitelock highlighted at her ‘Friends of the Library’ talk, the question now is what will be done with this collection of collections?Will they return to where they were originally deposited, or will they remain in the UL collections? What other ‘curious’ items will the UL acquire over the next 600 years? Where will the narratives of the UL, the collections it holds, and the individual objects within them go next?
‘Curious Objects, Hidden Histories’ is exhibiting between 3rd November 2016 and 21st March 2017 in the Millstein Exhibition Centre at the Cambridge University Library. The Exhibition Centre can be accessed on the right hand side of the reception desk in the lobby. Be sure to visit this display of an incredibly interesting collection from one of Britain’s most important libraries.