Monday, 21 July 2008

The National Library of Scotland

On the morning of July 21st, librarians Emma Faragheri and David McClay gave us an excellent presentation about the library’s recent acquisition of and display development for the John Murray Collection, which was offered for a mere £32.5 million—and for which payment was mostly comprised of lottery funds, public donations, and subsidies from the John Murray Foundation. Generally collections are donated to libraries, but it was very important to have this particular collection remain at home in Edinburgh, as the Murray publishing organization has been an important part of the history of the region, so they found a way to get the money.

The goals when acquiring and setting up an exhibition space for the Murray collection included making everything in the collection accessible to the public. To this end, they utilized an audience development model with the worldwide public in mind, and they set out to transform anyone into a confident researcher. The library really aimed for the information to be available to the average Joe, and they wanted to help him develop research skills and confidence skills by showing people how to do the research. The library worked with their curatorial staff, exhibition specialists, consultants, artists, and the like to develop an exhibition model and style so that these goals might be successfully implemented.

The whole range of practical issues about any display, such as lighting, space, etc., had to be negotiated with one question in mind: how can everyone understand and enjoy this? There were three concrete categories of pieces that would be displayed. First were the objects, which are usually easy to understand and are reachable to anyone on a surface level. Then there was the art, which is more difficult to grasp and generates an emotional reaction that can provide a gateway to understanding. Finally came the real focus of the exhibition—the manuscripts, which have to be read, often with great difficulty, and must be given context and illumination, even in the face of interpreting handwriting and the ideas contained therein. Other manuscript exhibits had show the staff the risks that came with such a display; these are often text and label heavy, which makes them dry and un-engaging. The National Library development group wanted an engaging exhibition that was displayed theatrically, was object rich and label poor, with information interactives, where light and shadow were used to create atmosphere, and where the robust means of display communicated the process of writing and publishing.

To this end, the team utilized market research and the government learning outcomes to create an Exhibition Goal Design, with manuscripts at the core of a circular graphic diagramming the goals of communicating the archive, the context, and the process of publishing. They felt that visitors should be able to “meet” people represented in the archive in some way, and they should be able to use the exhibition as a step toward developing a relationship with the archive.

The archive itself includes the work of 20,000 authors, collected over seven generations and about 230 years. The John Murrays brought their individual tastes to each generation of the collection, and the Murrays published people from Jane Austen to Charles Darwin. This cross section of authors is meant to be represented in the exhibition of the single most expensive (and arguably the most important) archive in the world. The National Library got to decide the theme of the exhibition and the parts of the collection that they wanted to highlight. The collection encompasses about 150,000 items that date from between 1760 and 1920, and there are about 50,000 more volumes from 1920-1950, and also includes 15,000 images that needed to be cataloged and presented, which was done by digitizing the pictures and presenting the series to complement the writing in the collection. The staff is currently about two years into a three year program of cataloging the materials up to 1920, and they may be done by next year.

The exhibition itself was excellent, involving a huge amount of interactivity, with interesting choices for lighting, sound, and humorous touches in the display. All of the programming updates are done on site using xhtml, and different authors are highlighted and displayed as the staff chooses. There was a conscious decision for everything except the manuscripts to be fabricated props, so that the authenticity of the manuscripts could be better highlighted. It was a delightful display to move through, involving interesting and thorough interactives and targeted sound choices.

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