Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Museums & Exhibitions

The Space Age and the Digital Age: Linking Museum Exhibits and the College Classroom

View of the exhibit space and the "Explorer's Legacy" exhibition.

View of the exhibit space and the “Explorer’s Legacy” exhibition.

When I first came to the University of Iowa, the north lobby of the Main Library was a drab, dated, and draughty area that had little sense of identity or purpose. It was used to display holdings from the library’s Special Collections, but students passed through in a hurry, on their way to classes, coffee, and maybe even to check out some books. Now, after almost three years of renovations, the old lobby has been transformed by the library’s staff into a much more welcoming gallery and exhibit space, one that invites the visitor to linger.

I was really excited to get to explore the new gallery and its first exhibition, “Explorer’s Legacy”, and to see how this new space has the potential to blend digital humanities, archival research, public engagement, and the hands-on teaching of history. Teaching history at the college level is less and less confined to teaching in the college classroom—or rather, there’s an increasing recognition that there are multiple places on the college campus and in the wider community that can function as a history classroom.

Plus, hey, outer space: exciting even to a medievalist.

Just in case you hadn't figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.

Just in case you hadn’t figured that one out. UI Special Collections RG99.0142.

James Van Allen

The inaugural exhibition focuses on the career of renowned UI astrophysicist James Van Allen (1914-2006), particularly his work on the Explorer missions. A native of the state, Van Allen earned his MS (’36) and PhD (’39) here before beginning his long career as one of the university’s most distinguished faculty members. In the 1950s Van Allen and a team of his graduate students created a set of scientific instruments that were launched with the first US satellites to reach space: Explorer 1 and Explorer 3. The data collected on these missions led to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Though Van Allen is most well known for his involvement with the Explorer missions, he was the principal investigator for scientific investigations on no fewer than 24 Earth satellites and planetary missions, and discovered one of Saturn’s moons in 1979. That’s the kind of legacy that gets you a building named for you on the UI campus.

Bounding Space…

The exhibition contains many of the elements which you might expect to find in a museum: photographs and maps, physical objects and labels, and there’s a lot to linger over. But for me, one of the most evocative parts of the exhibition is its audio element: the visitor moves through the space to the soundtrack of the low rumble of static and frequent, steady pings. This is the sound of the Van Allen Explorer tapes, of data beamed back to Earth from the satellites and stored on hundreds of reel-to-reel magnetic audio tapes. The preservation and digitisation of these tapes was a difficult and expensive challenge, but Special Collections staff were able to save this unique part of the Explorer mission’s historical legacy.

Close your eyes and listen for a moment, and you’re transported to a place very far from Iowa. It’s a wonderful way to create a connection between a visitor to the exhibition and the sense of discovery which no doubt Van Allen and his team experienced. There’s no seeming pattern to the sounds (at least to this non-physicist) but you can’t help straining to detect one anyway. Nowadays, it’s easy to call up sophisticated visualizations of the Van Allen Belts online without ever leaving the comfort of your own living room, but there’s a visceral quality to standing in a quiet, shared place and listening to the dawn of the Space Age that just can’t be beat.

That, to me, is one of the most appealing aspects of the digital humanities—the ways in which it lets me, as a scholar and a teacher, create whole new sensory experiences for people. History becomes more than a series of dead letters, pinned to a page. It’s got a rhythm you have to learn to listen to.

Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen's experiments.

Each dot on the globe represents a place associated with Van Allen’s experiments.

… and Expanding the Classroom’s Scope

The exhibit also ties into larger archival and historical projects here at UI. There’s the Explorer’s Legacy website, which combines long-form historical narrative with some of the archival materials relating to Van Allen held in Special Collections. It fleshes out the story of the Explorer missions for those whose appetites have been whetted by the exhibit, and would make great reading in the history classroom.

But even more useful for those of us who want our students to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of historical research are the archival materials related to Van Allen and the Explorer Project which have been uploaded to DIY History. DIY History is a crowd-sourced transcription project which was launched in 2011 by the UI’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, which helps to make large quantities of digitised primary sources searchable and therefore accessible to the general public.

For most students, the scholarly labour which goes into producing editions of texts is invisible, but primary source documents don’t magically appear in sourcebooks or on websites. They are the product of hours of transcription and translation, of puzzling over sometimes illegible handwriting, of figuring out the most accurate way to translate an idiom from Latin, of compiling the footnotes and other scholarly apparatus that help to provide a fuller picture of a document’s historical context.

When students are encouraged to contribute to DIY History, they’re not only furthering the reach of these archival resources, they’re also acting as historians—practising the kinds of skills that historians find invaluable in their everyday work.

(Not to mention that this medievalist is pleased that even in the Space Age, knowing how to read cursive is still a very useful skill.)

“Explorer’s Legacy” runs from now until April 8, and is free and open to the public. Gallery hours:

Monday-Saturday: 10am—5pm
Sunday: 11am—5pm

Hardin Library Medical Incunabula

Above from left: Nuremberg Chronicle; Ars Moriendi; Niccolo Scillacio’s “Que in hoc libello continentur”; Celsus’ “De medicina.”

I headed away from my usual campus haunts today, across the river and up the hill to the Hardin Medical Library. Tucked into a corner of the library’s fourth floor is the John Martin Rare Book Room (pictured left), which holds the University’s collection of rare medical books, including some fifteenth and sixteenth century incunabula. The curators held an open house this evening, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to explore some of their collection.

While medical history isn’t my field, I find incunabula fascinating from the perspective of the history of the book. It’s not just the shift from handwriting to type, or from parchment to paper. Here you have reprints of texts that have often existed already for centuries in the manuscript tradition, sometimes still with hand-painted rubrication and illumination, sometimes reproducing the medieval system of scribal abbreviations. You can see the process of working out this new technology right there in front of you.

6a013486c64e2e970c01a5119080a2970cFor example, this text (right) is Mondino dei Luzzi’s (d. 1326) Anatomia, in an edition likely printed in Leipzig in 1493. This is one of the first texts which teaches anatomy in a systematic manner, written around the time that the body also began to be dissected in an orderly fashion. (The frontispiece for this book even has a woodcut showing a dissection in process; the body being dissected looks remarkably sanguine about the fact that his intestines are on display.) The printers recreated the scribal abbreviations used in the original text, even though the work involved in creating all those type pieces for each individual symbol must have been painstaking. The whole volume is annotated in a late medieval or early modern hand—which I had to admit was quite impenetrable to me—and liberally sprinkled with some beautifully sketched manicules.

So far, so medieval, yet the economies of scale which printing introduced meant this edition was able to reach many more people than manuscripts of Anatomia ever did. I wonder if the wide margins were a feature deliberately designed by the printers to appeal to note-taking medical students? It’s certainly an easily portable size, and it’s easy to imagine someone taking this along with them for reference on the go.

6a013486c64e2e970c01a511907fe7970cSome other highlights of the collection include a ca. 1470 edition of Jean Gerson’s (1363-1429) Tractatulus de cognicione casittis et pollucionibus diurnis, the first printed book to address sexual matters; Pietro d’Abano’s (1250-ca. 1315) Conciliator differentiarum philosophorum et medicorum in a beautifully illuminated edition of 1476 (see left); a massive three volume set of Avicenna’s (980-1037) Canon medicinae, which was printed in 1498 and is said to have been the first edition of Avicenna’s work printed in France; and an even larger copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

I spent my walk home trying to think of ways to incorporate these holdings into the next class I teach—I think they’d appeal to a lot of undergrad students, particularly those from a STEM background. Even if they can’t read the texts themselves, there’s still a lot to be said for getting to experience the origins of your field through a physical object. And to be honest, thinking about lesson plans was a good distraction from the fact that I was trudging through the mother of all rainstorms which had not just turned my umbrella inside out, it snapped the handle in two. Midwestern weather is always an experience.

“Coptic Textiles” at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin

Being from Ireland, I’m pretty used to heading into a museum and seeing artefacts which have been preserved in the acidic, anaerobic environment of an Irish bog. The items in the newest display at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, however, were preserved in very different conditions: the dry desert climate of Egypt.

The “Coptic Textiles” exhibition is tucked into a small corner of this small gallery, which is itself tucked into the side of the Nassau Street entrance of Trinity College. It includes a number of pieces made between the 5th and 11th century.

They are a vivid illustration of the kinds of cross-cultural contacts which existed in medieval Egypt. As well as the indigenous Egyptian and Romano-Egyptian motifs, there are distinct hints of Byzantine or Islamic artistic influence. Some of them are tiny fragments; others, like the example I’ve included here to the left, are largely intact. This one—showing a cavalryman or maybe a saint—is some sort of medallion which I imagine must once have been affixed to clothing.

I do have to talk in terms of hints or possibilities, though, because the puzzling omission from this exhibition was the almost complete lack of interpretive material. I understand that pieces can have shaky provenances or can be difficult to date precisely, but there was no explanation as to the individual pieces—no illustrating maps, nothing about manufacturing techniques, no explanation even as to how the exhibition was arranged. I thought I detected clusters of motifs or techniques, like several small, vibrant pieces which seemed to show humanoid monsters with exaggerated male genitalia, but it was difficult to understand them without context. Overall, “Coptic Textiles” is no doubt fascinating for those who are interested more in the aesthetic qualities of textiles, but a little frustrating for those of us who would like to learn more about the textiles’ history.

The exhibition runs at the Douglas Hyde Gallery from now until 19 March.

“Lumières de la sagesse” Exhibition – Musée de l’Institut du Monde Arabe

This Saturday I paid a visit to a new exhibition at the Musée de l’Institut du Monde Arabe, called “Lumières de la sagesse – Écoles médiévales d’Orient et d’Occident,” which runs from now through to January 5th, 2014. Curated by Djamila Chakour, it seeks to explore the role of formal education in the medieval world (primarily the 9th through to the 15th centuries), and how it contributed to the circulation of knowledge between Western Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World.

The exhibition focuses primarily on manuscripts, and there are about fifty beautiful examples here, gathered not just from Parisian libraries and museum, but also from as far afield as Leiden, Aberdeen, Bologna, Copenhagen and Riyadh. The genres on display range just as widely: from medical treatises and philosophical works to Latin-Arabic dictionaries and commentaries on Euclid. Combined, they give one a real sense of how knowledge was created and transmitted as higher education became institutionalised over the course of the medieval period, and of the awareness which medieval peoples had of their cross-cultural contacts. For example, this wonderful fifteenth-century manuscript illustration from Italy (now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), which shows the “fathers of medicine” talking to one another on a rather Escher-esque staircase: Asclepius, Hippocrates, Ibn Sina, ar-Razi, Aristotle, Galen, Macer, Albertus Magnus, Dioscorides, Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, and Serapion.

6a013486c64e2e970c019affa92516970cThe final display case in the exhibition holds something that is sure to fascinate any medievalist: the original foundation charter of the Sorbonne, complete with its original wax seal, still attached by its silk threads. It’s surprisingly small and unassuming, looks like many other thirteenth-century charters, and is much less physically impressive than many of the larger works in the exhibition, yet is a key piece in the history of one of Europe’s most important universities.

Located as it is on a somewhat awkwardly shaped mezzanine level, the sens de la visite of the exhibition, as the French put it, isn’t always entirely clear. The explanatory material accompanying the exhibits is mostly useful, but contains some odd lacunae. The exhibition is obviously tailored to a general audience, and there’s only so much which one can fit into a couple of lines—but if, for example, one has opened a medical text to a series of sketches of mandrakes, it would seem necessary to explain them! They’re eye-catching but not necessarily something most people could identify. It was also not always immediately clear which manuscript was which—the placards were numbered but the artefacts weren’t, and there was one case where four different manuscripts were described but only three were on display. There, even the process of elimination didn’t help us identify which manuscript the third one actually was. These quibbles aside, “Lumières de la sagesse” is a highly worthwhile visit for medievalists and non-medievalists alike.


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