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Not with words but with things: objects and their meaning in an academic library

The stories of five remarkable objects in Senate House Library’s latest exhibition
By Richard Espley, Head of Modern Collections, Senate House Library

Since its founding, Senate House Library has amassed numerous artefacts to support teaching, to record the history of the University of London, to honour their original owners or simply as curiosities. Among the Library’s millions of printed volumes and archival papers, the significance of these objects is often unclear or contentious. This exhibition showcases some of the Library’s most remarkable objects and encourages viewers to reflect on their lasting meaning.

This exhibition began in an idle conversation about the surprising richness of Senate House Library’s collections of physical objects, which have their own peculiar and demanding storage and preservation needs, and arguably sit incongruously among our millions of volumes, manuscripts and papers. Further investigation and systematic searches of the archival collections in particular revealed a greater, and unquestionably broader, range of artefacts than any of us had originally suspected. What also became clear very rapidly was that many of these objects immediately and powerfully embodied diverse narratives, whether of love and adoration, physical greed or bold political activism. As we continued to reflect on the significance of our exhibits, the eclectic mass of hair samples, works of art, ancient writing, medals and coins began to transform the Library into a secular reliquary and a private museum as well as a centre of research. This exhibition encourages visitors to consider the lasting meaning of some of these objects. The five items below, selected from those currently on display, demonstrate the power, but also some of the interpretative problems, of such a collection.

MS1095-1051Three samples of mummy wrappings, MS1095

The Library received these three (right) carefully clipped samples of Ancient Egyptian mummy wrappings from Reginald Arthur Rye, librarian to the University of London for nearly forty years and effectively the creator of the remarkable collections of Senate House Library today. An ardent amateur Egyptologist, he also bequeathed to us a history of Egypt he had written as a schoolboy, and his pen-and-ink copies of Egyptian manuscripts from the British Museum. He appears to have used that knowledge to decorate this small pamphlet, somewhat naively, with Egyptian symbols. While such samples may seem a shocking desecration of irreplaceable artefacts, they were not uncommon souvenirs of once fashionable events known as mummy ‘unwrappings’, strange hybrids of archaeology and theatre where invited audiences watched the exploration of the preserved corpse.

There are three samples in the booklet, one of unexplained provenance, and one from a mummy unwrapped in 1889 that had already been in the collections of University College London for half a century. However, the last sample is potentially the most interesting. It is from a body that Rye identifies as Nebset, unrolled at Stafford House in Southampton Row in 1875. The cadaver, wrappings and sarcophagus were subsequently given to the Royal College of Surgeons to display in their museum. Along with two thirds of their exhibits, it was entirely destroyed by a bombing raid in 1941. There is at least a possibility, therefore, that this insignificant scrap of linen could be the last surviving fragment of Nebset’s bid for eternal life.

Silver teaspoon belonging to Ellen Ternan, MS915/2/14

MS915-2-4-0772

This teaspoon was bequeathed to the Library by archivist and Dickensian scholar Katherine Longley as part of a significant quantity of archival material relating to the actress Ellen Ternan and her theatrical family. As an antique piece of cutlery, the spoon is unexceptional: its only worth would probably be as scrap silver. Longley’s interest, and frankly that of the Library, is not in the spoon, or even the unexceptional performer who owned it, but in her extremely close relationship with Charles Dickens. This relationship has been much discussed, and that discussion itself has become a subject of analysis, perhaps most masterfully by Michael Slater in The Great Charles Dickens Scandal. As the title of that work indicates, Ellen Ternan herself becomes a secondary and passive figure in all of this, and the inclusion of the spoon in an academic archive highlights the tension between the personal nature of such an object and the interpretation placed upon it. Included with this relic is a typed testimonial from Longley, quoting Ternan’s daughter Gladys Reece’s reminiscence that it is ‘the little spoon my mother used to use’. There is an inescapable poignancy in this fond and intimate description being coldly typed and preserved not to honour the feelings of a daughter for her late mother, or even to recall that original owner, but rather because of her potential infidelity with a novelist of genius. As a storehouse of such fragments, we have inadvertently absorbed many such mundane but heartfelt markers of love and loss.

Cast of the memorial to Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, DLL/6/8

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This item (right) is problematic in almost every respect. It purports to be a casting of the face of the memorial effigy of William Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. That monument itself has been endlessly debated, not least by those, such as Edwin Durning-Lawrence, whose Library we are proud to possess, who sought to prove from inconsistencies in depictions of the monument that it was a fabrication, and that ultimately the works of Shakespeare had been written by Francis Bacon.

But whatever the truth of such claims, this remains a puzzling item. It is known that in 1748 the memorial was indeed cast in plaster by the Revd Joseph Greene, and that in 1814, and again in 1846, casts were made of both the head and the entire monument before restoration. Casts of both are not common but fairly plentiful in museum collections. But on the reverse of this item there is a note claiming that ‘a small number of casts’ were made by ‘one Warner’ in 1840, without authority, and that he was ordered to destroy them and any matrices or moulds, but that he kept ‘a few’ copies. This tale of clandestine casting of the figure’s face seems unreliable, and corroborating sources do not seem to be forthcoming. The label also claims that an identical cast is in the National Portrait Gallery, but even a cursory examination of that item demonstrates that our cast, while related, is very much less finely detailed.

At base, this is a rather mediocre piece of statuary, and even its claims to be a faithful copy of an original are questionable. Nonetheless, it is a heavily freighted object on which many people would like to press meaning and value. However that tension is approached, what it unquestionably remains is a potent reminder of the sometimes oppressive and obscuring emphasis that the culture places on the very idea of a man called Shakespeare.

A silver ingot and figure of Hercules, both claimed as Roman, HPI/5/6

The Harry Price Library of magical literature came to the Library in 1936 on loan, and some of its 13,000 volumes suffered in enemy bombing of Senate House during the Second World War. Bequeathed to the university on Price’s death in 1948, the library and attendant archive have at times been as controversial as Price himself. An extremely active author and broadcaster on paranormal matters, Price was without doubt a very effective self-publicist. However, throughout his career he was suspected and publicly accused of falsifying or elaborating evidence, whether to discredit mediums or to amplify his own effectiveness as a psychical researcher.

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Earlier in his life, Price had also made a study of archaeology, writing on the subject for local newspapers in his home county of Sussex. This object (above) is perhaps Price’s most outstanding, and suspect, find. Claiming to have found it lying on a ploughed field in 1909, Price rapidly identified it as a Roman silver ingot, bearing an inscription identifying the man who had created it. Unique in its inscription and shape, the ingot was widely reported. Within one year, however, it was dismissed as an inferior and obvious forgery by two experts writing in the journal of the Society of Antiquaries.

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The statuette of Hercules (left), again claimed by Price as a Roman find, has been similarly dismissed as a somewhat clumsy modern copy, and is indeed suspiciously crisp and clean for something that has spent thousands of years in the ground. Technically worthless and potentially criminally misleading if they were ever to be released onto the open market, within the confines of the library these items are rich reminders of Price’s perseverance and talent for celebrity. As with many forgeries, they can be cast as eloquently and efficiently giving a more reliable portrait of Price than any of his memoirs.

Suffragette-inspired silk buttonhole, MS913E/3/1

MS913E-3-1-0830

This fragile and beguiling item (below right) is part of a large archive of the papers of the De Morgan family, principally of Augustus de Morgan and his offspring. De Morgan was a professor of mathematics and an influential figure in the founding of University College London. It is a rich and eclectic collection, which includes a letter of condolence on Augustus’ death from Virginia Woolf and correspondence with scientific men such as Astronomer Royal Sir George Biddell Airy, as well as numerous photographs, sketches and drawings of the family. Amidst this material is a startling bundle of papers from Augustus’s daughter, Mary (or Molly) De Morgan, a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and a professional singer.

The buttonhole appears to have been worn to covertly espouse the cause of female suffrage by being composed of the colours of the WSPU. Its very subtlety speaks loudly of Molly’s fear of too openly displaying sympathy with the suffragette cause, though she happily collected photographs of damage caused to homes and businesses by her more militant colleagues. Before its arrival at the library, it had seemingly been somewhat neglected as a trivial souvenir, and was heavily stained and flattened. Painstakingly restored by the Library’s conservation team, its delicacy and beauty once more belie the passion with which it was worn and the suffering for which it stood.

‘Not with words but with things: objects and their meaning in an academic library’ runs through 22 March at Senate House Library. For more information, visit http://senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/visiting-the-library/exhibitions.

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