– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

open days at St Cross

More soon about the Swinburne exhibition that’s just opened at St Cross, but first a few thoughts about other ways we make what goes on behind the usually-locked door of St Cross more visible to the general public during our Open Doors days:

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The Oxford Preservation Trust provides large posters and balloons. They don’t last well in sunshine, so we replace them for the second day! Aside from the obvious festive feel and visual cue they provide, a visually impaired visitor today told us that the bright blue colour alone gave him something useful to steer toward – a good thing to keep in mind.

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Fortunately the weather was warm and dry enough that we could keep the door open. We also tie back the gates – people tend to shut them conscientiously, thinking they are ‘doing the right thing’, and in many circumstances that would be so, but for Open Doors we do want the gates to remain wide open and welcoming!

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Our friendly team of Balliol staff and students and an Oxford Preservation Trust volunteer steward are on hand both at reception and throughout the nave to answer questions about the building’s history, the conversion work, the collections kept here and the current exhibition.

Most frequently asked: ‘Where is the loo?’ (It’s signposted too.)

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A welcoming space – tables have been moved from their usual places in the nave so there is room for free movement throughout the space.

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In addition to whatever exhibition is currently mounted, there are always heritage elements of the building and from Balliol’s special collections on display. The Charter of Incorporation of 1588 is permanently mounted on the wall, and we open its curtain for visitors’s days and have a leaflet available about it.

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A selection of modern printed works supporting the main exhibition is available to browse, and chairs are strategically placed throughout the building – all too rare in museums and galleries…

Copy of DSCN9202The chancel provides a place to sit and read the stacks of information provided, enjoy the painted ceilings and absorb some of the atmosphere of the church building. This is where we site the guest book and OPT visitors’ comments sheets, away from the busyness of the reception desk near the door, in an area visitors will reach only after they have had some time to think about what they have been looking at. Also in the chancel was a notice about the current ecclesiastical status of the church and an announcement of tomorrow evening’s patronal festal service.

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The repository door design, incorporating glass panels, allows a rare glimpse into the sancta sanctorum where only staff have physical access, for obvious security reasons. Visitors can observe the contrast between the traditional design of the church and library shelving on the outside and the light, clean, spare materials used in the repository – and the contrast again between that and the ancient collections stored there.

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Modern printed special collections in the nave shelves are often mistaken for the ‘real old stuff’; we provide descriptions of the various sections of books to explain what’s in them and why they have been moved from the main college library.

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No matter what else is on display, someone is always disappointed if there isn’t at least one medieval manuscript on view during an open day. Today there were two. Thanks to the glass doors again, they didn’t even need to leave the repository, but were displayed with proper supports from a folding table and the workhorse trolley from inside the unit. Both were further supported by a textual description and several prints of much-magnified illuminations from the pages shown.

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Anyone looking into the north repository can also see how the books are stored – horizontally, not stacked – and just how high the ladders are that staff are up and down many times a day. It’s not (just) a sedentary job!

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Many different formats of archives are just visible in the repository, stored on space-saving rolling shelving.

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Despite the solid panels in the doors, it’s possible to get a minimally-restricted view of the manuscripts on display.

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Five years on, we still get numerous questions about the conversion project, so our display board information about it is still available, but we kept the display boards out of the way of likely camera angles.

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There is even a display of images from the collections opposite the loo – so nobody has to look as though they are queuing…

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We had a couple of hundred people in today, considerably fewer than for the same time last year, but the majority enjoyed a very thorough look round the building and the exhibition, and there were no lulls in attendance or times when the church was empty – indeed most of the time there were at least half a dozen in. The numbers and distribution of visitors made for a relaxed atmosphere where people felt welcome to take their time, and there was no jostling for position in front of the exhibition cases. Sheers numbers aren’t everything! We look forward to another good day of Open Doors tomorrow.

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