THE POETICS OF EXHIBITION CATALOGUES
D. W. Krummel Original
Brief comments read at the American Library Association convention in Chicago,
July 9, 2000, before presentation of the Daniel J. and Katharine Kyes Leab
Awards of the ALA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, July 9, 2000. An abridged
revision will appear in American Libraries.
Little is written on the philosophy and theory of exhibit catalogues as
literature. So let me use this brief meditation to talk about the topic. I do so
based mostly on my work some years ago in mounting shows at the Newberry Library
(Bill Towner, bless him, mentions some of them in his memoirs1), also in reading, describing, and reviewing exhibit
catalogues over the years.2
Poetics is defined as the theory of literature; and there is some theory in my
remarks, but it is well hidden, I hope, and probably as much Plato as Aristotle.3
For poetics, I suspect, one could substitute the
word engineering (this would really clear the room here today).
Architecture would also work, or even music, or dynamics, or method (or, God
help us, methodology). The poetics (or engineering, or architecture, or method)
applies both to the entries in the catalogue and to the catalogue as a whole;
and it is the poetics (or the engineering, or architecture, or method) that
tells us why exhibit catalogues can be important and exciting.
The point of an exhibit is to display important things in a library that might
not be otherwise noticed, partly because there are so many other things in the
collection. This is why the best exhibits are done by those who know the
collection, and who sense what readers want to see. The entries in the
catalogue—like the captions in the cases—and the catalogue itself, are
essentially narrative promotion.
This means that the entries are usually unlike what one sees in library
catalogues. AACR-2 practices are beside the point. What we need instead are
details that tell the readers why they are there in the first place. Lest
we bore our guests, the entries themselves need to be far shorter than MARC
records, although MARC data are very useful. Instead, the captions need to
include those very details for which cataloguers find their fingers slapped when
they include them in "field notes." These details are what antiquarian
booksellers spend many pleasant hours uncovering in order to sell the book.
(Thus we save dealers’ catalogues, or clip their citations to file with our
copies). The details are what reviewers talk about in evaluating current books.
(It’s what makes the ancient Allibone’s ancient Critical Dictionary such
a delight in studying nineteenth-century literary taste, for instance.) In other
words, the point is to tell visitors how damn lucky they are to be there—much as
good antiquarian booksellers will subtly tell you how damn lucky you are to be
allowed the privilege of buying their books.
The catalogue as a whole also tells a story. The sequence, of books in the cases
or the citations in the catalogue, assembles the story that justifies the event.
Usually the argument proceeds chronologically; sometimes it is thematic, and it
is alphabetic only out of desperation. The cases and the page layout—their
space, arrangement, and logistics—work ruthlessly. At their happiest they make
up a sonnet, at their most cryptic, haiku, but always most fittingly they are
whatever the story calls for. The 1969 Berlioz exhibition at the V&A, for
instance, was a maze of grottos, closets, and affectionate scenarios, dark and
meandering but with tender discoveries around the next corner, much I think like
Harold discovering Italy. The installation must have been atrociously expensive,
but I think Hector would have loved it.4
What we see in the cases—the words in the poem in a sense—will reflect on much
considered thought about painful options. Miniature books in dark rooms will be
read like preciously obscure poems; if you are lucky to have an Audubon folio it
is hard to show it (I suppose the poetic counterpart would be a haiku about a
California hippopotamus). Condition is no less just as important. For a Henry
Purcell show in Urbana I should dearly have loved to show the third folio, since
Purcell set Shakespeare, and this rarest of the four came from Purcell’s
lifetime. Alas, the Illinois copy is held together by Elmer’s glue and scotch
tape, like cheap, sloppy writing. There are also always the smarties who love to
complain, either in print or in gossip. Their poetics counterpart could be the
editors who are forever improving your writing to make it sound less like you.
The Breslauer-Folter exhibition at the Grolier Club of landmarks of bibliography
is spectacular, and any rare book library that does not own the catalogue
deserves to go out of business.5 But I know three titles that
I think should have been shown instead. I won’t tell you what they are, since I
don’t know what space was available is the cases, or whether handsome copies
were even available.
Narratives tell stories, and stories usually have morals, or at least arguments.
Those who hate books always love to be offended, but those who love books also
often have problems with the morals of the story. I remember from the 1950s, in
the LC Music Division, working with the late Edward Waters on the printed
programs for the chamber music concerts in the auditorium named for Elizabeth
Sprague Coolidge. If the Library owned the holograph manuscript, it went on
exhibit in the pavilion named for Gertrude Clarke Whittall. Mrs Whittall, who at
the time was still living, was also a patron of concerts, and she never really
enjoyed being reminded of Mrs Coolidge. In planning one concert that included
the Bartók fifth quartet, I innocently asked if we would be showing the
manuscript. Ed’s face turned very pale as he grabbed the phone to plead with the
quartet to change the program. (They did.) This work was a Coolidge commission,
and Mrs Whittall would not have liked it one bit.
The goal of the exhibit may be to make a statement, but it is not to lose
friends: behind poetics necessarily lies politics. Not surprisingly, some of the
best exhibit stories (unlike this one) never get told. The anthology of
counterparts is limitless. I doubt that there are many overtly sexist
exhibitions today. The saga of the LC Sigmund Freud exhibition may have a moral,
although any point about psychiatrists being crazy is so well-known that it
scarcely needs to be recalled.
On-line exhibit catalogues can reach a wider audience, if not necessarily a more
appreciative one: the pilgrimage to the true relic is part of the experience,
and the greater the effort, usually the stronger the experience. Exhibit
catalogues also become historical landmarks when they are preserved, and when
this happens the morals in their stories can change. Many exhibits are soon
forgotten, but when the catalogues are rediscovered they may assume a new
meaning. Stanley Morison’s great 1963 IPEX exhibition in London, for instance,
now can be seen in terms of its two parts, or really, its two Carters. The less
famous of the two may in fact be the more important. The British Museum part led
to a wonderful 1967 coffee-table book entitled Printing and the Mind of Man.6
A high spot in the history of high-spot collecting,
it reflects the presence of John Carter and Sotheby’s; but its heritage is still
one we could usefully dig out for ourselves. The other part of the show,
at Earl’s Court—the Eleventh International Printing Machinery and Allied Trades
Exhibition, organized by the Association of British Manufacturers of Printers'
Machinery, in other words Harry Carter’s part—is arguably the more important,
for its influence on today’s flourishing scholarship in the history of printing
technology, including, for instance, Gaskell’s New Introduction. (And if
you don’t have a copy of the catalogue that includes both parts, good luck in
finding it. )
As for the famous Houghton Library exhibition called "Marks in Books,"7
it still mostly confirms Ranganathan’s Fourth Law:
"Libraries are for use." (Sorry about that, Roger.) The basic point to all
exhibits, however, is really Ranganathan’s First Law instead: "Every book its
reader." Ideally, library collection development balances the opposites of
formula and instinct. The one is reflected in official policy, the other in a
principle bravely enunciated by Stanley Pargellis: "when you see a good book,
get it." One works through the explicit practices that develop general
collections, the other works through the hustling that gives us great special
collections. The one is a matter of engineering and leads into the metadata of
the official catalogue, the other a matter of taste, in other words poetry, and
it leads into the narratives of the exhibit case. To make its case in to the
public sphere, the library needs both.
All of my points, of course, (counterparts perhaps to Aristotle’s unities of
time, place, and action) mostly confirm what good rare book librarians already
know. (I might think differently if I knew more about the theory of poetics, but
I doubt it. The same goes for engineering, or architecture, or music, even
history, at least as the subjects are taught as academic disciplines.) What
librarians need mostly is the unmeasurable quality called "smarts," as well as
expertise in what used to be called "book lore." (And any good Parisian
intellectual can tell you that this is not to be confused with histoire du
livre.) The more one is part of the community of expertise, the better the
exhibition. The more you know your readers and your collections, the more
effective the show. In order to learn this, do you really need a research
methods course in library school—or ones in poetics, or music, or engineering,
or architecture? This beats me. It’s really more useful, and usually more fun,
to schmooze with the old geezers in the antiquarian book world. If you need to
take a course in library school, seriously, my best advice is to make it
one in children’s literature called story-telling.
Lawrence W. Towner, Past Imperfect: Essays on History, Libraries, and
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), passim
Among these are "An Edwardian Gentlemen’s Musical Exhibition," Music
Library Association Notes,
32 (1976), 711-18, and the survey of
exhibition catalogues on music printing in The Literature of Music
(Berkeley: Fallen Leaf Press, 1992), pp. 151-180.
Earl Miner’s survey in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 929-38, suggests
4Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination: An Exhibition Organized by the
Arts Council and the Victoria and Albert Museum on behalf of the Berlioz
Centenary Committee in Cooperation with the French Government
1969). My review is "Berlioz at the V & A," Musical Times
, 111 (1971),
Bernard H. Breslauer and Roland Folter. Bibliography: Its History and
(New York: Grolier Club, 1984).
The bibliographical history of
this event needs a study in its own right. The lavish folio-sized Printing
and the Mind of Man: A Descriptive Catalogue Illustrating the Impact of Print on
the Evolution of Western Civilization During Five Centuries
, with Denys
Hay’s introduction (London: Cassell; New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1967,
and reissued) also appeared with a new introduction by Percy H. Muir, additional
bibliographies by Peter Amelung, and a revised index (München: Karl Pressler,
1983). There are other editions, and a German version (John Carter, Bücher,
die die Welt verändern: eine Kulturgeschichte Europas in Büchern,
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1969; München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag,
1976). These are not to be confused with original exhibit
catalogue, a quarto-sized booklet entitled Printing and the Mind of Man.
Assembled at the British Museum and at Earls Court, London 16-27 July 1963
(London: F. W. Bridges, 1963; 125 p., some copies have different pagination), of
which the British Museum part was also issued separately.
7Marks in Books, Shown and
Explained: An Album of Facsimiles,
with Preface and Annotations by Roger E.
Stoddard; based on an exhibition at the Houghton Library Beginning Feb. 14, 1984
(Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library, Harvard University, 1985.)
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