The academic partnership between the Institute of English Studies (IES) and the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery produced two major events in 2018: an international conference at the Blackburn University Centre and ‘Finding Mr Hart’, a specially written play based on the life of Blackburn collector and bibliophile, Robert Edward Hart.
The academic expertise in the history of the book provided by the IES has enabled the little-known Hart Collection of some 800 rare books, manuscripts, and coins to take its place as an internationally recognised collection attracting international scholarly and public interest.
Opened by Jack Straw, former foreign secretary and Blackburn MP from 1979–2015, the conference welcomed more than 70 delegates and a range of national and international speakers to the Blackburn University Centre. They came from universities, libraries and local interest groups, such as the Calderdale Calligraphers. Among the speakers were Professors Nigel Morgan and David McKitterick (Cambridge), Dr Scot McKendrick (British Library), Dr Catherine Yvard (National Art Library, V&A Museum), and Dr Eric White (Princeton).
The conference was preceded by the opening of Level 2, a space within the Blackburn Museum for the consultation of collections, teaching and community events, which was secured by the IES and the Museum through a Resilience Grant from Arts Council England. On 15th February 2019, Dr Johnston will utilise the space for an IES study day on ‘The Medieval Book’, using the Hart Collection to provide illustrative examples.
Finding Mr Hart, which premiered in the Blackburn’s Victorian Cotton Exchange before travelling to Senate House, was created by Christopher Adams, a professional playwright and a book historian at IES. Part of the School of Advanced Study’s international Being Human festival of the humanities, it is a family drama based on Dr Johnson’s research on the Edwardian industrialist prolific collector, Robert Edward Hart. Under the direction of William Maynard, the play, performed as a promenade in the gothic decay of the Cotton Exchange, examined the consequences of Hart’s book-collecting compulsion on his widowed mother and sister.
On a snowy night in Blackburn, the usually disused Cotton Exchange was filled with people and light. Some of the audience were aware of Hart through knowledge of the Blackburn Museum, while for many, the story of the town’s greatest benefactor was completely new. This event enabled IES staff to connect its academic expertise to a local audience, the original intended recipients for Hart’s gift of his collection upon his death to ‘the people of the town’.
The success of the conference and the Being Human event were central to a curatorial award to the Museum from the Paul Mellon Foundation. The grant will enable Dr Johnston, MA course tutor and lecturer in the history of the book and communication, to continue her research on collectors of the North West, culminating in an exhibition at the Blackburn Museum in September 2019.
The research has already produced significant finds in the Dunn Collection at the Blackburn Library and the Spencer Collection at the Harris Museum in Preston. The exhibition will focus on the ‘Art of the Book’ and the bibliomania of collectors across class boundaries in industrial Lancashire.
The images selected for the exhibition have been found in books held by a group of libraries and museums in the North West, including the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, the Blackburn Library, the Harris Museum, and Towneley Hall Museum in Burnley. The books were meant to inspire and their images to delight the citizens of the towns. ‘The project aims to bring back the art of the book by reinterpreting the collections and making them newly relevant to the communities to which they were gifted’, Dr Johnston said.
The exhibition will raise awareness in local communities, as well as nationally and internationally, of these visually captivating and culturally important collections. ‘The fusion of art and culture, visual delight, and intellectual curiosity were core motivations of industrialist collectors’, Dr Johnston added. ‘The exhibition aspires to deliver these experiences to their historically intended communities’.