July 21, 2008
After spending two weeks in London, my class and several other classes in our program took coaches up to Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, to stay for a few days.
Our first library visit in Scotland was to their National Library (founded in the 17th century and currently popular for genealogical studies), where Emma Faragher, the education and outreach officer for the John Murray Archive, gave us a PowerPoint presentation on 'Interpreting the John Murray Archive: Manuscripts and Accessibility'. The Archive was sold to the library by John Murray the Seventh in 2002 for about £32.5 million. Part of their funding for the purchase of this collection came from the heritage lottery funding. It is unusual to get public money to fund a collection, so Ms. Faragher stressed that they have to ensure that they can make the collection accessible to anyone who can buy or benefit from a lottery ticket due to the source of their funding. They strive to promote easy access and to avoid library jargon. They want to bring people in and encourage them that this archive is a collection that they can use.
They also realize that more people will come to see an exhibition than will go into a reading room, so the exhibition aspect of the archive is very important to them. Curators, external staff, and specialists have all had input on the exhibition. But how do they display and interpret manuscripts to make them accessible to people? They had to ensure that the lighting was good for both visibility and conservation, adjust the height of the exhibits so that they could be viewed by children, adults, and people in wheelchairs, and do many other things to make the exhibit understandable and enjoyable for as many people as possible.
Although manuscripts are the core of the collection, in looking at other exhibits they learned that people are mainly drawn to objects. Objects are easy to understand. Labels near the object indicate its age and purpose, and visitors use their own experiences to understand the object, which makes them react to it on an emotional level. Art, of course, also stimulates an aesthetic or emotional reaction, but it is sometimes harder to get people to respond to art because of the many layers of interpretation. Manuscripts are still more challenging, because the ideas in the letters are where the value and understanding lies, and those are hard for visitors to access at a quick glance. It is especially difficult when the letters are long, the handwriting is difficult to read, and the context of the letter is not immediately apparent (Who wrote the letter? To whom did they write? Why were they writing it? What things were they writing about, and how do modern readers place that in a historical context?).
With all of these things in mind, they tried to avoid certain patterns in their exhibit. They didn't want to make it text and label heavy - that would make the atmosphere dry and un-emerging, leading to bored visitors. They wanted to display the archive in a theatrical way with more objects than labels, and they wanted the information to be accessible and interactive. They also wanted to make use of light and shadow to create atmosphere in a display that kept the documents safe, and they wanted to communicate the processes of writing and publishing to their visitors.
They also did some market research on other exhibits, and they learned that visitors valued actual evidence of first-hand history, things that brought to life and revealed the personality of historical figures, aspects - especially political - relating history to today, and audio narrations rather than having to read lots of text.
In addition to modeling the exhibit based on their research, they also had to ensure that their exhibit met certain educational standards and learning outcomes (knowledge and understanding, skills, attitudes and values, enjoyment/inspiration/creativity, and activity/behavior progression).
They brought all of these various factors together in their exhibit. While the manuscripts are the core, what the Archive is, the history behind it, and the people whose letters are included in it are also an important part. The context of the exhibit is the whole Victorian world, and the process is how a book is produced. Visitors can "meet" the people who wrote the letters with exhibits designed to help them understand the person's physical aspect and character. They want their exhibit to engage people and hopefully bring them back to learn more.
The other speaker was David McClay, who amazingly has the same last name as me! He said they have about 20,000 authors in the Archive from seven generations of John Murrays. Their publishing business is at the core of the collection, but each Murray added his own interest to the business. For example, the second Murray was into poetry and novels, so he published Austen and Byron. Another, who liked geology, published Darwin and practically invented travel books. Out of all of this, they have to choose eleven people to include in the exhibition. They had to decide which of the many people who were published by the Murrays would speak most to people, and they also wanted a variety of travellers, novelists, etc.
Mr. McClay also told us that this archive was the second most expensive archive purchased in the world. It was evaluated at £45 million (a minimum evaluation). Individual pieces of it could have been dispersed and sold all over the world for an extraordinary amount (especially author's original manuscripts), but they wanted to keep the collection in its entirety within the UK. With such a huge collection, they are still working on repairing documents, storing them appropriately, and cataloging towards a million items. While this collection obviously attracts academics, they are trying to get more people in to see it (hence the exhibit). The collection includes 15,000 images, letters, and business ledgers (difficult for the average reader to comprehend because of the context of the process). Mr. McClay also noted that they have a traveling exhibition to attract more readers (although they are careful not to risk highly valuable materials). They also do joint exhibitions with other organizations.
We then were taken into the exhibition itself. I found it very engaging and highly interactive. The lighting and the Victorian decor were very atmospheric. The display cases contained a number of items in addition to the manuscript being highlighted, both clothing that would have been worn by the author and objects from the time period that related to the context of the letter or document. Panels near the cases allowed visitors to highlight various objects within the case, and each object had accompanying text that could either be read or listened to that told more about the person's life or times. The manuscript itself could also be viewed and enlarged on the screen, both in the original handwriting and in a transcription for easier reading. In addition to the display cases, there was also an interactive display on how a book is published that I think would be very entertaining for children (at least, I was entertained). I think they did a marvelous job with their exhibit.