From Another Point of View: Exhibiting Manuscripts Online and in Person

I recorded this brief presentation in September 2021, as part of “the digital medieval manuscript: an expert meeting,” organized by Kathryn Rudy at the University of Saint Andrews and held virtually on October 8, 2021.


In March of 2020, an exhibition of medieval manuscripts I curated was installed at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Because of the quick rise of Covid-19 the exhibition never opened, and was finally deinstalled in October. The FLP staff worked with me to do what we could to virtualize the experience, including building a small online exhibit and presenting a series of virtual lectures and workshops. But it wasn’t the same; something was lost. We talk a lot about what is lost and gained when manuscripts are digitized, but what about the larger experience of digital exhibits vs physical exhibits? In this presentation I will address this question: What is the substantive difference between a physical exhibit and a digital one? And what do these differences mean for both the general and the scholarly audience?

Transcription (slightly edited):

Hi there, my name is Dot Porter and I am the Curator for Digital Research Services in the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. And what I want to talk about today is a little bit different from anything I’ve ever talked about before, and I hope that you’ll humor me on this. This isn’t really a scholarly talk so much, it’s a little bit theoretical.

But mostly, I want to talk about an experience that I had recently. It has to do with COVID. And it has to do with my labor. And it’s a little emotional for me. But I hope that there will be some interesting conversation to come after this, because this experience made me think about things a little bit differently than I was before.

I want to talk about exhibitions, which is not really something that I’ve that I’ve done a whole lot. This one that I’m going to talk about is Medieval Life: European Manuscripts in Philadelphia Collections. This exhibition was originally conceived to celebrate the completion of a major digitization project, the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis project. From 2016, to 2019, we had a major project funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources here in Philadelphia, to digitize manuscripts from 14 different institutions. What we wanted to do was exhibit manuscripts from all of these different institutions. And the the organizing factor was thinking about medieval life.

The exhibition had five different sections, and each section included several manuscripts and also some modern things as well, because the point, one of one of the things I wanted to do with the exhibition was to bring medieval life closer to us to say, here’s how medieval people were similar to us.

The exhibition was in collaboration with the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is the public library here in Philadelphia. They invited me to curate the exhibition in their space. I worked closely with their exhibition staff, including designers, and there was a person that they hired to hold my hand through the whole process. The curators helped me with my with the text of my cards, which were, you know, much too advanced at first. And so they helped me rewrite them. And it was just a really, it was a really wonderful experience.

The exhibition was scheduled to open on March 30 of 2020. It was installed in February, and on the 16th of March, the Free Library shut, Penn shut, everything shut, and the exhibition didn’t open. And the exhibition never opened.

It actually stayed installed much longer than it was planned to. It was supposed to be open from March through July, it stayed up through the summer into the fall. Closed, right because the library was closed. And nobody was actually seeing it was just sitting in this in this empty, dark gallery. There was a time in October when we thought that it might open and it did not. And then in in January, it was deinstalled. So now it’s down. But it was up for almost a year, right? In this empty space.

I did go get to see it. I got to take my family, which was which was really nice. And I know staff in the library got to see it. I think there were probably some patrons who got to see it. But for the most part, it was a fully conceived exhibition with no with no audience.

I have some some more photos because it was so so beautiful. So here’s, here’s the gallery space. And you can see on the wall we have there were some rolls because you know medieval manuscript rolls are pretty neat. And so I had some rolls. And you can see on the wall that I worked with this exhibition designer on these rolls that that you could actually pull them and you could see the whole roll which is not something you can usually see in exhibition unless you have you know, unless you’re able to put it on a very long, very long table which we didn’t get the space for.

It is also something that you can do digitally, interestingly enough, right. You can see the whole roll digitally, but it’s a very different experience from being in a room with it. And this is sort of where I want to go with this.

The exhibition was designed as a physical experience.

In fact, one of the things that I had in the space was a movie playing in the back of the gallery, and you can’t see it when you come in, because it’s not it was on a big screen that’s behind a wall. But you can hear it. It’s a film called The Luttrell Psalter Film. And it mostly has music and a little bit of a little bit of talking, but it’s mostly music, and nature sounds. And so when you come in the gallery have music and nature sounds of the like, of the Middle Ages, but also familiar to us, because it’s just music and nature sounds. And that’s, you know, that hasn’t changed, a little medieval music.

So you’re walking through this space, and you’re looking at these objects set up in a very particular way, in an order by me. So here is, this was the section on labor. And so part of the section on labor was images from for laborers of the month from books of hours. So you can see there on the right, there are these four leaves that have four different labors. These are leaves that were excised from one manuscript that was taken apart, I don’t know, in the 18th century and so I was able to talk a little bit about, you know, this process, sort of common process of like manuscripts being taken apart.

And then there’s some more books of hours there in the, in the case, open to specific pages. And then what you see on the left, this was one of my attempts of bringing the modern and the medieval sort of closer together. So I had a modern bakery menu from a Philadelphia bakery. And next to that is a is a chart from England, showing the prices of bread, sort of more like a legal document. So a very different kind of thing. But but for, you know, for this audience, I wanted them to think about this, oh, yeah, we still kind of do this. And then the chart in the middle is talking about the jobs that people in Philadelphia have.

So, so this was what I was trying to do in in the in the physical exhibition it had a very specific aim. So we have a prop, this is a prop from the Dark Crystal, we actually got this… I’m so mad that this exhibition didn’t happen, I can’t talk about it without getting kind of upset, because because, you know, it was just really neat. So here is this prop manuscript from the Dark Crystal.

Urine wheels, really cool, right? And, you know, we had a had a modern replica of a uroscopy flask, which is neat. And then of course, there’s a modern one, a modern cup, like you get when you go to the doctor’s office, and you’re going to have your urine tested. So it was this very again, you know, trying to get into this mindset of this, you know, specific thing.

At some point, we were like, well, this isn’t gonna happen. And so in the fall of 2020, you can see on there, the team at the Free Library, said, we’re gonna make a digital copy, just in case, you know, just so people can see what it is. And so here’s the link for that.

On one hand, this is great, because we get the same information from the gallery, makes it into the website. And so the, if you read the text, on this website, it’s the same text that you’re going to find when you’re walking through the exhibition. But the images that we’re showing here are not actually photos from the exhibition, there are photos from the digitization project, right. So if you click on the link that says view full artifact, you can view it. This is the opening that I had selected in the exhibition. But it looks really different because it’s not the book in the gallery. It’s the book in the lab, where we where we’ve photographed it, you know, very, very different experience, very physical experience. Even though in the gallery, you can’t touch them. It’s still, I mean, we all know this, right? It’s just really different, but I hadn’t thought about how different it was until the gallery wasn’t accessible at all. And when we had to rely on, on the on the website, the experience of seeing the physical book is not is not there.

So I was able to get in and take a video.

And one thing that the video has, that the website doesn’t have? Well, we’ve got the view, the impression of the view of how the gallery looks, which is something that was lacking from the website, because the website, like all you know, it’s like all digital. All our digital versions are really focused on, you know, presenting data. This is not data, this exhibition is not a presentation of data, it’s a presentation of things, in a very specific way. And so the video you get that sense. And you actually get to see the cards, the music that you’re hearing, I hope you can hear that the music is from the movie that was playing in the gallery.

Oh, and that’s totally lost in the exhibition site. I don’t think it even cites the movie, the movie is not there at all. And it would have been a major part of the experience of the exhibition.

I’m over time.

And I’m still trying to figure out what, because we all know that a digital manuscript is different from the manuscript in front of you. But what about this? What about this exhibition? This is a whole other I feel like this is a whole other thing. I’m trying to sort of figure out how it relates to my digitization work. Is it relevant at all? Should I be thinking in in these sort of exhibition terms? I don’t know.

Anyway, thank you. Thank you for listening. Thank you to Kathryn and Suzette, for putting this event together. It’s really, it’s really great and I’m excited to see what other people are talking about.

Video walk-through of the Medieval Life exhibition

Thanks as always to the team at the Free Library of Philadelphia who made the exhibition possible, especially Allison Freyermuth, Caitlin Goodman, Nathanael Roesch, Clare Fentress, Alix Gerz, Christine Miller, Andrew Nurkin, Joseph Shemtov, Suzanna Urminska, with a special mention to exhibition designer Megan Grimm.