It’s a shame that Library use these days is looked upon as a quaint cultural custom of yester year because the result is that The Humanities and Social Sciences Library does not get the patronage it deserves. The Main Branch of the Library is widely acknowledged for putting together consistently solid shows, and yet, their exhibitions rarely draw huge crowds. The notable exception to this, of course is, Utopia, which, being the most important show this century of documents and ephemera shaping western ideology, makes sense. In any case, exceptions notwithstanding, the library remains a largely untapped resource.
The Splendor of the Word is a yet another example of a collection within the library which is essentially unknown. The seed of this exhibition began three years prior in the Wachenheim Gallery, with Illuminated Manuscripts, a show which focused on the evolution of print, from hand lettered books, to printing with movable type. This year, we see some of the hits from that show, including my personal favorite, the girdle binding, Brevairy, (a ready to wear bible designed to swing from the hip).
Illuminated Manuscripts: Take Two, as I like to call it, expands it’s focus from the development of movable type, to a survey of over 300 Western European illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The exhibition is a systematic categorization of these books, and is thusly divided into five parts: I) The Patron, the Artist, and the Book, II) Bibles and Bible History, III) Liturgical Manuscripts, IV) Books of Private Devotion, and V) Scientific, historical, literary, and Didactic Manuscripts.
Given the ambition of this show, it’s success is no small feat. In an effort to ensure this review is shorter than the length of the accompanying catalogue I think we can simplify things somewhat by saying that the exhibition text, the objects themselves and exhibition design are the biggest contributing factors to the achievements of this show.
It is impossible to display the content of most books in their entirety, and thus necessity (and scholarship) dictate that the library rely on wall text, labels and brochures to shape their exhibitions. The facile in which the library uses text is a trademark to their shows, and sets them apart from other museums in the city. The eloquent write-ups used through out the exhibition describe the economics of manuscript production, offer a concise explanation of the importance of bibles in the middle ages and renaissance, and define the use of liturgical Manuscripts, as well as their influence on clergy and lay people. The only real wording criticism I have of the text heavy show, lies in the quote below.
“One need have no knowledge of the medieval languages or habits of thought to appreciate the high quality and the aesthetic ebullience of the these finely crafted manuscripts…”
While I am sure there are people who know what ebullience means without having to reach for their Girdle Binding dictionary, I am not one of them. And, for those of you who are wondering, dictionary.com defines it as zestful enthusiasm. I don’t know how appreciating an aesthetic zestful ebullience happens, but anyone who can explain it to me wins a free AFC mocking on the subject of your choice (pending AFC approval of course).
Now, I don’t want to sound overly anti-intellectual, but it must be said that no one goes to an art exhibit just to read the wall labels, and if this is the most interesting part of the show, there are problems. Luckily, a lack of historically important and beautiful objects have never been an issue for the library. Massive illustrated manuscripts, at least 2 1/2′ wide, are great show stoppers, as well as those with impressive buckles and other binding accoutrements.
But this show has been careful to be as inclusive as possible, which means it is not simply a collection of “Histories Biggest Hits”. Thusly, one of the more interesting pieces in the show, is a Book of Hours which contains a duplicated illustration of The Adoration of the Magi. It’s a great piece to include, because it demonstrates the pitfalls of a system which employs multiple artists working on a single publication, who clearly have very little contact. In addition, it offers the opportunity to compare the same piece, by different artists, side by side. This is important because it inevitably illuminates what makes these works successful or not.
Yet another reason this show is successful is because, this object, like everything else in the exhibition, is in a German designed vetrine, flanked by the majestic walls of Gottesman Gallery. The topic of excellence in exhibition design, specifically at the New York Public Library can not go unmentioned. For one, it’s hard to imagine a better backdrop for the show than the marble walls of the institution. In addition, the exhibition department at the library has an impeccable record for putting together shows which, from a design perspective are flawless. The display allows for an easy flow of traffic, the lighting is impeccable, and the handmade mounts for the books on display are often in and of themselves works of art. If it hasn’t already been said, the mount making department at the New York Public Library, is second to none. In fact, think it’s odd that other institutions have not followed suit, since there nothing looks worse than seeing a 500 year old object mounted on a cardboard box, (visit the met, once you see it, you can’t unsee it). Of course, mounts like these are expensive, and rumor has it that the library has been in labor disputes with it’s exhibition staff for close to a year now. Apparently employing full time staff as though they were part time contract workers means you can afford lots of mounts. But more on this next week. For now I leave you with The Splendor of the Word, an exhibition that sets high standards, and actually meets them.