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Art & Science of Curation: A Reminiscence: the Challenges and Rewards of Curatorial Expertise

The Art & Science of Curation is a project which explores ideas around Curation and the role of the curator. Over the coming year, we will be inviting people from both within and outside our museums to share their thoughts on curation.  We want to build a body of writings which articulate and explore the many different ways in which a curator can curate, and each week we’ll be posting a new piece of writing here on our blog.  If you feel you’ve something interesting to say, do please get in touch about contributing. Find out more about the Art & Science of Curation on our website.

A Reminiscence: the Challenges and Rewards of Curatorial Expertise
Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books, Fitzwilliam Museum

Stella PanayotovaAs a student in the 1990s, every time I made the tortuous bus journey from Oxford to Cambridge, I stopped at the Fitzwilliam Museum in order to see some of its extraordinary illuminated manuscripts. They were displayed in the Rothschild gallery, which was essentially a long and gloomy corridor, usually deserted, often closed. Visit after visit, I approached the old cases plunged in darkness and pressed the light buttons (some of which worked if I persisted) only to see the same manuscripts displayed at the same openings, with the same uninspiring tomb-stone style labels. It was a permanent manuscript display, permanent in the literal sense.

When I came to the Fitzwilliam Museum in November 2000 – no longer as a critical visitor, but as the curator exposed to criticism – the very first thing I did was to change the display in the medieval gallery. Visitors and colleagues were delighted. I was humbled and worried. My frustration as a visitor was replaced by the anxieties of a curator. I had come to appreciate the severe limitations imposed on my predecessors by the flat, shallow cases and the poor lighting. Only slim volumes would fit in the cases and only if opened somewhere around the middle. Larger manuscripts had to be tamed down like pressed flowers in an over-crowded cabinet of curiosities. If a small, flat cradle could be squeezed in to support the book, the dim light trickling from the top of the case was completely blocked. Worse than that, I was facing a conservation problem. We all know how readily books fall open at the place where they had stayed open for a while. Many of the volumes permanently displayed in the Rothschild gallery would no longer close properly. Fortunately, the Museum was closing down for a two-year building campaign. With a focused conservation programme and a good rest for the books over the two years, my part-time conservator, Bob Proctor, and I managed to reverse the ill effects of permanent display.

The old Rothschild gallery no longer exists. After the building campaign it became part of the new shop and Café, and another, much smaller space was redesigned as the Medieval Treasury. It is the only place in the Museum where illuminated manuscripts are on permanent display. This time, not literally permanent. Four sets of manuscripts are exhibited in rotation throughout the year, each for a maximum of three months. However, the new gallery is half the size of the old one and although nicknamed the Medieval Treasury, only half of it is devoted to the Middle Ages. The other half covers the period up to 1700. More importantly, the gallery includes a wide range of exhibits, from coins, jewellery, and portrait miniatures to ivories, enamels, sculpture, panel paintings, and textiles. Originally we planned to graft thematic sections onto the chronological order of display and represent each theme by different media. But the conservators were not willing to compromise the needs of diverse materials. In the end, we agreed to show different types of material in their own cases, with appropriate light levels, but in close proximity so that the viewer could appreciate both the variety of, and the dialogue between, different media and forms of artistic expression. The challenges of mixed-media shows are obvious to any museum visitor who has to move from a brightly lit-up display of metalwork to a dark case with barely visible textiles. The best one could hope for is a reasonable balance between the priorities of curators, conservators, designers and the audience.

There were other reasons for abandoning the mixed-media approach in our new medieval and Renaissance treasury. The involvement of four curators, all with different research interests and teaching needs, resulted in endless possibilities for the combination of objects in thematically-organised cases. For example, there was room for only one case devoted to the liturgy and therefore only one liturgical manuscript. The Applied Arts curator wished for a miniature showing a crozier and a chalice comparable in date and style to those displayed in the case. The smaller the manuscript, the better, she advised. The average service book is a quarto and deluxe examples are considerably larger. If I could show only one manuscript at a time, I would choose among our finest and most imposing manuscripts. None of them match the origin or style of the crozier and chalice; there were no other croziers or chalices in the collection to choose from. There was also a suggestion to display, in a case on medieval coinage, a manuscript that records a price paid by an early owner. Again, with the extremely limited space, I believed visitors would forgive me for not displaying a price scribbled by a fifteenth-century owner on the end leaf of a volume which had over thirty exquisitely illuminated pages to choose from.

The theme of medieval law required a legal manuscript and the Fitzwilliam has some outstanding examples, replete with scenes that strike a modern cord or two. For instance, a fourteenth-century copy of Gratian’s Decretum, the ‘bible’ of medieval law, illustrates in a rather graphic manner the case dealing with what we would now call a date rape. A young man proposes marriage, but is rejected by the girl’s father. The youth invites his sweetheart to dinner – we see the large wine jug and the consequences. To safe face, the father has to consent to the marriage and the young man eagerly follows the letter of the law. Even more explicit is the case of a woman whose husband becomes impotent and she is granted a divorce, much to her delight. She marries her lover, with a priest’s sanction, but her husband recovers and the bishop re-unites him with his wife. The image spares us the end of Gratian’s story: the lustful wife’s punishment is complete when her husband takes a vow of chastity. As visitors flocked to the case, one could hear them comment on marriage as a sacrament and socio-economic tool in the Middle Ages, express surprise at the sexually explicit imagery in ‘church books’, or make guesses on nineteenth-century reactions to them – my label mentioned that in the 1850s the manuscript belonged to John Ruskin whose marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. But concerned for her young audiences, the Museum’s Head of Education asked me to change the display opening. Now I usually open it at other images that demonstrate the legal intricacies of marriage in medieval society, though in a less memorable way.

While this exemplifies the sensitivities that museum curators increasingly have to recon with, the choice of display material at the Fitzwilliam is guided by additional requirements which most museums need not be concerned with. The Fitzwilliam is not simply the principal public museum of the city of Cambridge and the largest fine arts Museum in the East of England. It is also a research and teaching department of the University. I have to choose manuscripts that showcase the collection (one of the finest museum collections anywhere in the world), delight and inform the general visitor, and at the same time inspire and challenge the student. The selection needs to be a balance between ‘the best of’ and manuscripts that allow curators and University lecturers to teach their courses. The Fitzwilliam caters for a large number of Cambridge students and scholars during term time, and is very popular with the international academic community out of term.

For the last ten years, the manuscripts have been subjected to a particularly vigorous study. The Cambridge Illuminations research project, which produces a multi-volume series of catalogues of all Western illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam and the Cambridge Colleges, has placed regular demand on the manuscripts for research and digitization. And so has the MINIAREresearch project which uses cutting-edge non-invasive technology to examine artists’ materials and techniques in illuminated manuscripts, combining artistic, cultural, political, social, economic and scientific analyses. The high point of the former was the Cambridge Illuminations exhibition in 2005, which remains one of the largest and most successful manuscript exhibitions in a century. The response of the public – and the visitor numbers – were overwhelming. The feedback was invaluable as a reminder that what the public appreciates is not the ‘access’ or ‘impact’ that art and educational institutions are increasingly required to quantify in order to justify their existence, but the quality of the material on display and its interpretation based on in-depth research. The exhibition was the result of collaboration between experts in and beyond Cambridge.

Another aspect of the exhibition was crucial for its success: the physical display of the manuscripts. They were supported on bespoke cradles, made to accommodate the peculiarities of each volume in line with current conservation standards. Comfortably propped up to catch the viewers’ eyes, the manuscripts were arranged inside cases with internal, flexible lighting. Visitors commented on the unforgettable experience: ‘The focus of the lights with relation to the positioning of the books on their stands and their orientation towards the viewer enable one to examine the various techniques of illumination very closely… One could easily imagine looking at these books by candlelight – as they were seen originally.’ One individual should take the credit – John Lancaster, the single manuscripts and book technician in the Fitzwilliam who designed and produced the cradles so as to make the most of the lighting.

From the start, the exhibition was designed to reach wide audiences: from academics to summer tourists. The programme included events for everyone, from experts on medieval and Renaissance art to school children. The media interest, which snowballed in ways nobody had encouraged or anticipated, demonstrated that illuminated manuscripts have an appeal much stronger and wider than even the most enthusiastic manuscript scholar could imagine. ‘Intending to visit the exhibition some time next week, my wife and I went to your website and were delighted with what we found’, wrote Michael Palin. ‘Thank you for presenting so much, so clearly, so efficiently on a web site which works and which, when compared with the measly offerings of so many international galleries, is most generous. The exhibition far exceeds the web site and many expectations! We were totally entranced!…and the sandwiches in the café were excellent too!’

What gave me the greatest satisfaction was the confession of many visitors that they experienced an enormous pleasure – the pleasure of discovery and the pleasure of encountering beauty. ‘It was a feast for the eyes’, wrote a lady, ‘so beautiful, so moving, I couldn’t sleep last night.’ Another visitor confessed:  ‘I write in broad day light, but am still giddy with my experience of yesterday. It will take me days and days to get over the pleasure.’

The real source of surprise for members of the public was the free entry. Although the Fitzwilliam has a free admission policy for all exhibitions, the cost of the Cambridge Illuminations was such that in the early planning stages we were considering a charge. We were fortunate to attract enough sponsorship to grant free admission, but most people came with the expectation and willingness to pay. ‘I could not believe that all this was offered for free’, one person wrote, ‘especially when I think what I paid recently for a similar, but smaller exhibition in London.’ However, the free entry was vital for a show of such size and scope. Many visitors told us that they returned time and again. Some of them may have been discouraged to do so, had there been a charge. Over 90,000 people visited the exhibition. We had to extend it by public demand. As soon as it closed, complaints flooded in: five months was too short a run. My explanation that for conservation reasons we cannot display manuscripts for that long was counteracted with an ingenious suggestion: ‘If you turn the pages of each volume to the next miniature every three months,’ a resourceful visitor advised, ‘you could have a hundred exhibitions without changing a manuscript. And we’ll get to see the whole book.’ Visitors demanded to know how soon the next manuscript exhibition would open.

The results of the Museum’s other research project dedicated to illuminated manuscripts, MINIARE, will be shared with the public in 2016 through the Fitzwilliam’s bicentenary exhibition Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. An international team of experts is working on it already. And I’m finalising the manuscript arrangement for the galleries with John Lancaster, so be prepared for another splendid display and another unforgettable experience.

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