New exhibition pairs up top treasures from Oxford's Bodleian Libraries

17 February 2016

The Bodleian Libraries will be displaying a selection of its most magnificent items in its Treasures Gallery within the newly-renovated Weston Library.

Image of Bodleian Libraries' Treasures exhibition poster

The first exhibition, titled Bodleian Treasures: 24 pairs, opens on 25 February 2016 and will feature rare and renowned items including Tolkien's illustrations from The Hobbit, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Bay Psalm Book, the 'most expensive' printed book in the world.

The exhibition will present some of the best of the 12 million items in the Bodleian's collections and will uniquely display these treasures in 24 pairs. Familiar icons of the Libraries' extraordinary holdings will be shown alongside the less familiar, opening new avenues into the wealth of the Bodleian's famous collections. Some pairs show the influence of one book on another; some explore a similar theme, evoke a particular period, or provide a visual dimension to the display; others consider the very idea of a 'treasure'. Rare books will be joined together with manuscripts while modern ephemera will sit alongside 400-year-old rolls, drawing out themes and unique stories that bring the pairs together.

Image of draft of Wilfred Owen's Dulce et decorum est and poppy illustration by William Curtis, Bodleian Libraries'We've paired some of the Bodleian's greatest treasures, allowing visitors to see the familiar and less familiar in a new light, and to explore connections between objects across time, place, language, and discipline,' said Dr Francesca Galligan, a curator in the Special Collections Department at the Bodleian Libraries and the curator of Bodleian Treasures: 24 pairs.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • The Bay Psalm Book, modest in appearance, but now 'the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction' thanks to its sought-after status as the first book printed in North America. This will sit beside a lavish 9th-century book of psalms written in gold ink on purple vellum, inviting visitors to reflect on the appearances of “treasures”.
  • Souvenirs from the women's suffrage movement will accompany a 1217 engrossment of Magna Carta, telling the story of a quest for justice and human rights that has spanned 800 years.
  • The iconic 14th-century Gough Map, believed to be the earliest surviving road map of Great Britain, will be paired with the first public issue of the Ordnance Survey map of Kent, showing the River Thames from London Bridge to the coast.
  • A draft of Wilfred Owen's war poem Dulce et decorum est, written and corrected in his own hand, will be presented with stunning poppy illustrations published by 18th-century botanist William Curtis.
  • The monumental Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed using movable type, will sit beside an ephemeral souvenir that celebrates Gutenberg's invention, printed at a frost fair on the frozen Thames nearly 300 years later.
  • A superbly illuminated compendium of beasts , dating from the 13th-century, will be coupled with a Victorian advert for a performance by Toby the sapient pig, who took London by storm in the early 1800s with his ability to play cards and read minds.

'We are delighted to be showcasing some of the Bodleian's most important, evocative and famous books and manuscripts in this thought-provoking new exhibition in the new Treasures Gallery at the Weston Library,' said Bodley's Librarian Richard Ovenden. 'I hope it will give visitors a glimpse of both the breadth and extraordinary depth of our historic collections.'

Image of illuminated compendium of beasts and advert for Toby the sapient pig, Bodleian LibrariesThe magnificent items featured in the exhibition will span more than 2,000 years, ten languages, and many formats from photographs to copper printing plates, and from 'treasure' bindings made of precious metals, gems, silk, and ivory to treasures that have been found hidden in bindings, including important fragments of late medieval polyphonic music.

The oldest items going on display are fragments from a papyrus roll of Sappho's poems while one of the most recent items is a photographic portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi that has never been on public display before. The exhibition will also include: C S Lewis' Map of Narnia; the earliest surviving manuscript for about half of Plato's Dialogues; a letter written by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on meeting Queen Victoria; a bill for playing cards and decanters from Oscar Wilde's time in Oxford; an 11th-century gospel with ivory binding; the earliest document in the Oxford University Archives on an early case of town/gown strife; a manuscript of Alan Bennett's play Kafka's Dick; Holst's score of the Planets; and the first book printed in Oxford.

Bodleian Treasures: 24 pairs will open on 25 February 2016 and will run until 19 February 2017. Admission to the exhibition will be free and booking is not required. A programme of talks and events will be held over the course of the exhibition.

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