Blog post by Catherine O’Neill.
Katie was on a placement in Special Collections as part of her postgraduate Museum Studies course between January and April this year. Her focus was to assist and contribute towards the public programme of the Ingenious Impressions exhibition of incunabula which opened on 27 February and closes on 21 June.
Special Collections: a tucked-away treasure
I was fortunate enough to come to Special Collections because it was my first choice when choosing a placement as part of my Museum Studies course. One of the reasons was personal – as a part-time student it is easy to feel disconnected from University life and the wider campus as a whole. Over the course of my placement I became not only part of a University institution serving the academic community, but also came to appreciate the University’s 500 year-old ancestry through learning about its book acquisitions.
Staff in Special Collections make huge efforts to increase access to their rich collections. A lot of this is done online, and the incunabula Flickr set was a revelation to me. Although there is limited exhibition space in the department, every five to ten years the Hunterian opens up its doors to a book exhibition. My placement was thus very timely, and meant that I could contribute to the current Ingenious Impressions exhibition.
When comparing this exhibition to similar book displays ‘Ingenious Impressions’ stands head and shoulders above the rest. Stuffy antiquarian glass table display cases are dismissed in favour of an arresting atmospheric contemporary spectacle.
Everything Changes, Nothing Changes
The exhibition traces the transition from manuscript to printed works. Although this was a momentous change (the importance of which cannot be overstated), I was still struck by how some aspects did not change. Many incunabula are difficult to distinguish from manuscript works even to the trained eye. Indeed many of the earlier incunabula were designed to stylistically imitate manuscripts – and as a result were automatically familiar to readers because they adhered to manuscript tradition.
An example of this is rubrication which is information added by a scribe in red ink, usually to help navigate the text, and is often in the form of headings.
In the example below you can see a printed work (Cicero:De officiis [Mainz]: Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, 1465) which has nevertheless maintained the convention of having a red heading despite it being printed.
I was also surprised to learn that manuscript and print co-existed. One tends to assume that the former mode would become in many ways defunct but the book I decided to focus my research on (Jacobus Publicius: Artes ordandi, epistolandi, memoranda) existed simultaneously in both manuscript and print. In fact it was not uncommon for printed works to be copied out by hand by scribes. My simple and linear understanding of the relationship between the two forms was challenged by this more complex exchange.
Jump over the barrier
If there is one thing that I would really like to pass on it is there are rich rewards to be gained by engaging with the Collection. Special Collections can seem isolated (being on Level 12 in the Library) but it is a small barrier to hurdle. The friendly and welcoming staff more than make up for any initial inaccessibility. I would like to extend my thanks to them.