Illuminating Life Medieval Manuscript Exhibit
Explore our most recent experiential learning project and get a feel for the dynamic work of creating an exhibit.
Background to the Project
Illuminating Life: Manuscript Pages of the Middle Ages is an exhibit of twelve medieval manuscripts and printed books curated by graduate and undergraduate History students at the University of Guelph. Dr Susannah Ferreira, professor in the Department of History, and Melissa McAfee, Special Collections Librarian, offered their expertise and leadership to guide students through the research and curation processes. The project explores how medieval texts communicate information about the daily lived experiences of the people who owned and interacted with them. The manuscripts' historical contexts and the physical evidence left on the objects themselves allow us to access the historical worlds that medieval individuals and communities inhabited.
Three of the exhibited items are part of the library's own collections, but nine of the texts were loaned to the University of Guelph by Les Enluminures, an international rare book and manuscript dealer. The University was chosen from a competition to participate in Les Enluminures' Manuscripts in the Curriculum II program, which provides students with access to a diverse range of rare historical texts, an opportunity typically reserved for professional researchers and collectors. This exhibit, in its physical, digital, and catalogue(atrium link?) formats, would not have been possible without the generous support of Les Enluminures.
Preparations and Patience
The start of the Fall semester commenced an anxious period of waiting for the manuscripts to be delivered to the climate-controlled embrace of the University archives. None of the curators, however, could be accused of any thumb twiddling while we waited; before the manuscripts and books arrived, each graduate student involved in the project selected one text to curate for the exhibit. Between biweekly class meetings, students delved deep into the historical environment of their chosen text.
As the provenance of each item came into focus, a unifying theme for the exhibit also became clear. The texts reflected several different areas of historical interest, including religion, administration, and education, so we needed a theme that was relevant to all the texts but narrow enough to facilitate a coherent exhibit. Finally, we settled on daily life in the Middle Ages and set out to discover how the medieval experience was shaped by the societal institutions that the manuscripts represented. We created five subthemes: education, prayer, community, property, and the supernatural. Grouping the manuscripts into specific categories lent structure to the exhibit and gave curators the space to thoroughly convey the historical significance of each item.
Once the texts were delivered to the library, students got a sneak peek at the subjects of their research before a formal unveiling was held to publicly display the new arrivals. A lively full house of students, professors, and members of the public gathered to take in the spectacle, reflecting the broad communal appeal of these rare items. For many in attendance, the unveiling provided their first opportunity to see and touch an object that had somehow survived intact for upwards of five hundred years. Visitors were encouraged to touch and turn the pages of the manuscripts, a priceless interaction that few had anticipated. Physically connecting with an item from the past heightened visitors' understanding of how these objects existed in their historical context: dark marks on the margins indicated where a finger had repeatedly touched to turn a page, and notes scrawled in the back of a book showed someone practicing their Latin or penmanship.
The widespread fascination with the manuscripts was in full evidence when a crew from CTV News visited the archives to produce a special report on the exhibit and its student curators. Some students later appeared in that segment on the evening news, discussing the importance of the project and delivering mini history lessons on their chosen texts. As interest in the manuscript project deepened, local artist Debbie Thompson Wilson held an illuminations workshop at the library where students learned to make their own illuminated letters. They were taught calligraphic techniques similar to those used by medieval illuminators and embellished their creations with real gold leaf like the illuminations in some of the manuscripts!
Countdown to Launch
With the stars of the project on hand, the exhibit's opening date was set for March 12th and several experiential learning courses began to prepare for the launch. A first-year History class organized public tours of the exhibit, which the students themselves would have led as historical interpreters. While the tours had to be suspended, the intent was for students to apply their manuscript knowledge from the course in a practical setting to enliven their guests' experience of the exhibit.
Second- and third-year students in HIST*3480 designed and fabricated pamphlets and posters to promote the exhibit around campus. These students also undertook the digitization of the manuscripts, creating images that were used in the digital counterpart to this exhibit that was curated by students in HIST*4700. The students of HIST*3480 also formed the organizing committee of a conference that accompanied the formal opening of the exhibit and featured presentations from a number of student curators.
Opening day was jubilant; the energy in the exhibit space was reminiscent of the excitment felt before embarking on a field trip in elementary school. Daily routines were eschewed and focuses were trained on scrubbing persistent fingerprints off the display cases. All of our work over the past two semesters had been leading up to this: the presentation of our exhibit and research to the public.
The conference kicked off with the first student presentations, and throughout the day graduates and undergraduates showcased their manuscript research to the UoG community and broader public alike. Each student presented a passionate and erudite exploration of their manuscript research, a testament to the project's personal impact. Following the presentations, the red ribbon was cut and our exhibit was opened to the public for the first time. Visitors roamed between the display cases, soaking up the manuscripts' history from our case labels and enjoying their facetime with centuries-old historical items. The exhibit remained open for two whole days; and then the country went into lockdown following the declaration of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The development of such a comprehensive project around these medieval manuscripts allowed the curriculum to reach far beyond standard course delivery. The time students spent interacting with the manuscripts and each other, regardless of our exhibit's fate, mark this experience as uniquely formative in our university careers. Sentimental moments like grabbing a nervous breakfast at Brass Taps with fellow curators before the conference, or putting in overtime together in the Reading Room to overhaul our case labels, populate our collective memory of this exhibit. Though the culmination of our exhibit journey was little short of anticlimactic, collaborating on a longterm project centred on priceless historical artifacts with likeminded friends and colleagues was nothing if not fulfilling. This experience affirmed the passion each of us has for history and provided us a new outlet to pursue that passion.
Illuminating Life Photo Gallery
See the curation process in action! Click an image to view the full-sized photo. Many thanks to Lara Carleton, Guelph History alumna and current library Archives Clerk; without her well-placed lens, this exhibit would be a blur.