– 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.

#mss2017 Introduction

Introduction

I have produced numerous small displays of medieval manuscripts for teaching and college events since I became responsible for the collection and moved it to the new premises in 2010-11, but this is the first major exhibition of Balliol’s western medieval manuscripts in the Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church. It may even be the first exhibition of this collection that has been open to the public.

Because it’s rare for these ancient, unique and delicate objects to be exhibited, even to members of the College, I wanted to show as large a selection as possible, and to provide a broad overview of the collection. I have included manuscripts from the whole medieval period covered by Balliol’s collection (C11-16), representing a range of provenances, decoration and handwriting styles, contents, sizes, formats, physical condition, and conservation issues. Exceptions prove the rule; not everything in the exhibition is medieval, western or a codex (book-shaped) – or even manuscript (handwritten). Two manuscripts are shown closed; one is displayed upside down. Some mss are well known to scholarship and have been exhibited before; others are relatively unknown. All are catalogued (1-450 by RAB Mynors, 1963), but to widely varying degrees of detail and emphasis. Visitors may be surprised by the variation in the amount of documentation about not only conservation work but provenance and donation.

Focusing on the theme of damage and conservation removed possible restraints of e.g. period or subject, while avoiding a miscellaneous ‘Treasures of…’ approach. The manuscripts’ move to new premises was a good point in their history to assess their current condition and their needs for the foreseeable future, continuing to build on Balliol’s first several years as members of the Oxford Conservation Consortium.

Damage to manuscripts can occur at any stage of their existence – during production, while in storage, and in use (both voluntary and involuntary). I need only quote from the litany of woes turned up in the 2014 condition survey: dirt, losses, pest damage, staining, ink corrosion, text loss due to trimming, water damage, cockling, pleating, old repairs, smudging, ink fading/abrasion, ink offset, flaking gold, tears – to name a few. ‘Losses’ is a particularly painful catchall term including anything from a torn away corner to an excised illuminated initial to whole missing pages.

Conservators plan and carry out repairs to these amazing objects with great professional skill and enormous patience. Similar problems come up again and again, yet every case has to be treated individually, combining scientific understanding, practical knowledge and a creative approach. Much of their work is hidden inside a book’s binding once treatment is complete. Most items are not intended to, and do not, look ‘like new again’ after repair; they show their old scars as part of their material history, but are made safe to handle again (carefully) without causing immediate further damage.

In addition to repairs, however, the conservation team also help their members with advice and support on a wealth of related subjects: pest and environmental monitoring, preservation materials, all aspects of exhibition production, borrowing and loan of objects, transport, general and specialised handling and cleaning training for staff, loan of specialist equipment and advice on purchase, disaster preparedness and emergency response planning and training, and as we all do, career advice and visits for students.

Not every manuscript shown has been conserved – or at least not to modern standards – yet. The exhibition features a number of fine examples of the work of the Oxford Conservation Consortium and previous conservators known and unknown, but it marks a milestone rather than an endpoint. The OCC has been providing conservation services to Oxford’s special collections since 1990. Balliol joined it in 2006 at the instigation of Dr Penelope Bulloch, then Fellow Librarian, and with support from John Phillips and the Balliol Society. The OCC became an independent charity in 2014, and Balliol’s Archivist and Finance Bursar sit on its management committee. The OCC now cares for the historic collections of 17 colleges. They also maintain the Chantry Library of conservation-related publications, which is available to everyone.

A great advantage of OCC membership is the ability to plan not only a full year’s work but strategies and priorities for years to come. We have been able to move from a reactive programme of occasional work on individual manuscripts to proactive long-term planning that includes detailed conservation of key individual items but emphasises improving the condition and care of the collection as a whole.

Curatorial initiatives for the medieval manuscripts comprise a network of related projects:

Completed:

  • 2014 condition survey
  • boxing of all manuscripts (nearly 100) previously without boxes
  • 2017 exhibition

Ongoing:

  • Conservation treatment/repairs
  • Replacement of old/worn/substandard boxes
  • Improving descriptions and updating bibliography
  • Digitisation for documentation & research
  • Supporting teaching and research in person
  • Documenting manuscript fragments in early printed books
  • Workshops on correct handling of special collections material for students preparing for research using archives and manuscripts

The aim of all of these activities, and others as yet in the planning stages, is to improve preservation and access for all the manuscripts.

Preservation means ensuring the continued survival, and improved physical condition, care and handling of, all manuscripts. This is the responsibility of all staff and users of material. An archivist’s regular preservation tasks may include removal of rusty paperclips and staples, rehousing in acid-free archival quality folders and boxes, photography and scanning for cataloguing (to minimize use of the original), and training students and researchers in good handling practice.

Access is not only hands-on consultation of original material, but also improved access to better information about the manuscripts; images are an important source of information. It also includes improving understanding of the manuscripts as texts, physical objects and cultural products. Access is provided by staff and institutions, with input from researchers and scholarly publication.

Conservation means specialist professional treatment and repair of individual manuscripts, with the aim of ensuring that future careful handling/consultation/display does not actively cause further damage. Work is planned by staff in consultation with conservators, and carried out by the conservators.

Each of the manuscripts displayed is augmented by a number of prints from digital photographs, mostly enlarged details. While no facsimile edition or digital image can replace direct encounters with original manuscripts, they can support and augment research in person. An exhibition can only show one opening of a codex, or (usually) one side of an original document, at a time, in a single geographical place, to a limited number of people, for a limited period of time. Digital images can help to provide more access to information about, and contained within, the manuscripts, to more people in more places over a longer period. [more about digital images as tools for manuscript studies – not as substitutes for the original]

Digital photography of the manuscripts is carried out as part of my work as archivist, prioritised by researchers’ enquiries. Depending on the request and time available, I may photograph all or part of the manuscript, though in the case of part photography, ideally I will return later to complete the set. Images are sent to individual enquirers for ease of download, and also posted to Flickr at full resolution. Neither the original requester nor online users are charged for access to the images; widening access in practicable ways to collections that cannot be made generally available in person is part of the College’s obligations as a Charity, and of its aims as a higher education institution responsible for these historic collections. So far I have posted images of more than 100 of the medieval manuscripts online, many of them complete, in addition to some of the archives, personal papers, and key research resources, and the Balliol Flickr collections have had more than 2.5M views altogether (as of October 2017).

The supplementary images in each display case provide a window into other parts of the book and a magnified view of tiny details that can be hard to appreciate with the naked eye. If you are inspired by the original manuscripts on display to explore the wider world of manuscript studies, links to more images of these and many more of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, and a starter list of print and online sources, are provided in the Further Reading post.

A note about display: I have chosen to display most of the manuscripts exhibited on the grey foam wedge supports we routinely use in the searchroom, with the pages in many cases held in place by fabric-covered lead pellets (known as ‘snakes’). Using ordinary supports shows a little of how we, curators and researchers, work with manuscripts; it looks less ‘produced’ than museum-style stands, but after all the collection is owned by a small institution and a very small department. Only a few sets are new for the exhibition, and all will be used after it. This saves huge amounts of specialist time, money and materials in making custom-fitted card or acrylic stands for each, and means that all the display materials will be used again for years to come, for research, teaching and future exhibitions, since the wedge sets can be used in interchangeable combinations to suit the size and opening angle of any volume. Only the four tiny books in case 9 needed their own stands made, as they had to be strapped into place to remain open.

I have also chosen not to print copies of the exhibition catalogue except for use while visiting in person; those who would like a hard copy are welcome to print the PDF version or any combination of the blog posts for their own use. Any exhibition of physical items is ephemeral, but a catalogue should have the lasting effect of opening the exhibits, though in an inevitably limited way, to a wider audience than could possibly attend the exhibition itself. An online catalogue can be accessed and printed at any time according to the needs of the user, and can also be augmented and corrected into the future.

I would like to thank Jane Eagan and her team of dedicated professional conservators at the Oxford Conservation Consortium for a decade of not only repairs to Balliol’s archives and manuscripts, and latterly to some of the early printed books as well, but also for their expert advice and support on all aspects of the material wellbeing of the historic collections, including environmental monitoring and amelioration, pest monitoring and treatment, local and international loans and exhibitions, project grant applications and planning.

I thank also Annaliese Griffiss for proof reading – all remaining errors are mine – and invaluable help preparing the exhibition, as well as her ongoing work on the Manuscript Fragments project, and Sian Witherden for good conversations about tiny books and for her contribution on book vandalism.

– Anna Sander, BA, MPhil, MScEcon, Archivist & Curator of Manuscripts, Balliol College

Photographs in this catalogue are by Anna Sander for Balliol College except where otherwise indicated.

The catalogue as printed for use by visitors to the exhibition is available as a PDF here. The print version is restricted to a single opening (one A4 double-page spread) per manuscript, which is as much as anybody can stand to read while walking round an exhibition; this online version, a series of blog posts tagged #mss2017, contains more detail and more images for most entries, as well as Further Reading sections for specific topics not included in the more general Further Reading post. The print version entries will also be used as Special Collections in Focus posters in Balliol Library and Holywell Manor during Michaelmas Term 2017.

 

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