Originally posted in 2006. I wrote this essay when I was at the British Library, in 2005. It’s pretty out of date now, given massive developments in digital literature and publishing, as well as changed thinking about museum display due to a shift towards mobile and ambient media.
I’ve been thinking about books as objects of display, not disposable books that can be read in exhibitions but precious books in cases. The essential feature of the book, its binding of pages to allow so many thoughts to be shared and carried, is that which makes the book the most inaccessible form of written document when put in a case.
When we see books on display do we read them? How do books work in the spatial and social experience of an exhibition or museum?
Underlying this topic, which I admit is narrow, are bigger and more interesting questions:
What are the differences between reading and looking?
What are the relative purposes of museums and books?
And more practically:
What are the alternatives to books on display, to overcome their limitations?
In museum displays, books are inevitably received as visual objects, even if they are otherwise understood to be containers of words and ideas. Your fingers might itch to turn the pages as if you’re in a bookshop but you know that here you can only look. The main criteria in decisions to display books are about showing, rather than enabling reading, even if a book has a full provenance of interpretation and the exhibition is rooted in scholarship. It usually makes a better show to foreground significant illustrations, changes in production technology, decorative bindings or different formats. ‘Artist’s books’ or special editions, intended to be seen as artefacts, might be chosen for display over ordinary reading books.
Books may be used as exemplars, to represent the idea of literacy or to show the significance of ‘the word’ for a culture. Most often books are included in thematic displays alongside various artefacts, so they are received as things in a visual context. Books can be ordered on shelves or in tottering piles, as set dressing to show the enlightenment of a society, as in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Galleries, or of an individual such as a novelist.
Certain books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Golden Haggadah, must be displayed to give the public sight of unique and priceless icons that resonate with more meaning than they contain in either their fabric or their words alone.
Is looking at books on display the same as reading them?
Certainly visual objects, and therefore books as visual objects, can be read for meaning. But for any act of reading to be meaningful it has to be a hermeneutic process. For this, the contents have to be recovered and shared. The time needed to digest texts, not normally available on an exhibition visit, is an obvious hampering factor. You can’t get far interpreting a closed book unless you have other means of access to its contents or if you’ve already read it. Even if a book is displayed open it is still virtually closed. The more the contents are widely known (the Bible, Pride and Prejudice…) the more there can be shared hermeneutic activity, yet this is usually away from, or despite, the experience of the iconic book on display. Conversely, such a book (Shakespeare, the Qu’ran…), when displayed, becomes even more of a visual icon that is so already known it isn’t calling to be read as if new. There is little need to use that particular artefact to recover the fundamental message or story of its text.
The value of such an iconic book can be either emotional or academic, or both. The book displayed would not merely be ‘a Shakespeare’ but his First Folio, not merely the Qu’ran but the beautiful one commissioned by Sultan Baybur. As an emotional experience it can be a touchstone to prompt memories and new recoveries of known words. As an academic experience, it can offer ground to search what is visible of the whole artefact for clues as to its context, its making or provenance. Both, for the exhibition visitor, are arguably more about looking than reading. I have always asserted that looking is equivalent to reading, or rather that there is more reading in looking than we assume. I still believe this. My point here is about how your reading is disabled by having only partial access to contents, so you are forced to look only with your eyes. The more prior knowledge you have, the more you can make an interpretation of what little is visible.
Those who would passionately commend the display of books would draw attention to the possibilities of seeing differences between editions or between manuscript and print versions. A particular text might be displayed to draw attention to scholarly disputes or discoveries, such as marginalia added by other writers or evidence of redrafting between editions. (This can apply to John Lennon’s lyrics scribbled on a birthday card as much as to the writings of Coleridge or Hume.) In these cases you read the caption to know what is being highlighted then you look. It may be fascinating, even awesome, but basically the reading or the interpretation has been done for you.
The best reading experiences are when you are drawn to read between lines, inspired to visualise more than is given and more than you already know, when you are solving a mystery, hypothesising and predicting, when you are engrossed in another world, when you are provoked through satire or revelation. Visual art can allow a depth of engagement equivalent to a reading process, but the difference is in the time you are in contact with the stimulus. It can have a quality of taking seconds to swallow but hours or even years to digest. The reading occurs in reflection, conversation and remaking. Books on display do not, quite in this way, provide the initial stimulus for further interpretation, although they may make you want to go and get a copy of that book. Books may be richer to mine for meaning than a visual artwork but not via a momentary affective experience suited to an exhibition visit.
So why do we display books as visual objects, if they struggle to provide the cathartic affect of reading a good book or the cathectic effect of seeing an artwork? These might be some answers:
If the only objects considered worthy of display were the most spectacular or grippingly narrative, we would have a very limited culture of display.
Books can be a useful device for inserting ideas into an exhibition that may be in danger of slipping into pure aesthetics. Some of the very best exhibitions of all are curated by Ken Arnold for the Wellcome Institute, in which books play a central role but combined with contemporary art and curious objects.
Many people love books for various reasons and love to look at them, the more rare, quirky or authentic the better. The British Library’s John Ritblat Treasures Gallery may seem very low key but the word on most visitors’ lips is ‘wow’.
Artist’s books, exquisite illustrations or page openings that show a profound poem or thought can, with some effort, be as rich to mine for meaning as any painting or sculpture. (Choosing that single page opening is fraught for the curator, of course.)
I would be sad if all books disappeared from displays just because of the negatives I have raised. Part of their attraction lies in the fact that you are barred from reading them at that moment, as if you are looking at curiosity cabinets with only a whisper of one drawer open. Some visual objects allow a deeper hermeneutic process than others – they may provoke more questions or have more layers of conflicting meaning. They might offer these deeper readings, paradoxically, by veiling their meanings. The more ‘meaningful’ a visual object in this way the more it might be defined as art. It is possible to say that a book on display holds more resonance, and becomes a work of art, precisely because it does veil its meanings within its hidden pages. Perhaps putting a precious book in a display case is an adequate way to share it widely because at least it can have resonance in this way.
Why do we ‘museumise’ so much when knowledge, experience and culture can be conveyed in reproduction in books, films, websites?
If we have books and their high-tech equivalents, why do we need to go to the expense of making exhibitions?
Why might we want a ‘museum of books’?
The most popular exhibitions are not necessarily those on popular subjects but those that offer a unique experience or sight of strange or iconic artefacts, of ‘the real thing’. Some argue that the ultimate function of a museum is to conserve collections for posterity, with display or access as a bonus. What is true in this is that the collections are what make a museum. (I’m wary when a new museum is suggested for a political or therapeutic purpose without a strong base of collections, such as the USA wishing to establish a museum of the Iraq conflict, in Iraq.) However, this is not because the collections must be kept but because they must be seen and wondered about, now. When the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, only gives humanity a 50/50 chance of survival into the next century, this puts a new gloss on the meaning of posterity.
An exhibition is superficially like a book in that both aim to make any subject meaningful and to memorialise experiences and thoughts. Neither aims entirely to recreate reality. A museum may use real space and real things but uses them to create deeper inroads into your imagination and to make virtual worlds. However, museums do respond to the human need for the authentic, the tactile and the auratic in a world that is increasingly awash with reproduction and information. Books or written documents have occupied such an important place in many world cultures for over 2,000 years and in many private lives for at least 200 years (these dates are all qualifiable), that they must have a place in our museums. They can provide an experience of authenticity. Because the profound significance of ‘the word’ has long been understood, the physical carrier of the word has been celebrated, even venerated. I suspect that hundreds of thousands of items in the Library’s collections are more ‘visual’ than vast numbers of artefacts you may see in a museum (pot shards, anyone?) The main difficulty is how you expose all of that to the eyes of those who cannot easily get access to turn their actual pages.
Are exhibitions for art or for didactics, for looking or reading?
In an exhibition designed for an aesthetic experience, you are more likely to be encouraged to read each object on display as you read a poem, each one on its own, though each linked to the others by your own associations? In a more didactic exhibition you might be encouraged to approach it just as you read a book or watch a TV documentary, with ‘exhibit A’ as evidence in its argument, each object just a bead in its narrative chain. To generalise to an extreme, art museums or galleries have tended to display unique objects that can be interpreted in many ways, contextualised through juxtapositions of objects or by loose themes, whereas history or science museums have been forerunners in an ‘educational’ trend in which objects are examples in a narrative, concretising a message. These tendencies do not arise because of the nature of the institutions or the people that work in them, but because of the nature of their collections. Generally, I find art objects, and objects exhibited as visual poems, more effective for my learning and teaching than displays which aim overtly at learning or teaching. The resonance is stronger and the wondering lasts longer afterwards. Such a display can still be ideas-based, but the ideas are more intriguing if they are a cluster of possible threads, or if a single idea is chosen that has the greatest propensity to spark new ideas. This idea might be a ‘what if…?’ or an oxymoron or a twist on our usual thinking (such as Joseph Beuy’s ‘bandage the knife’). The more unreadable an object or the more one-dimensional it is, the more likely it will be treated as a synechdoche and the extratextual storyline will dominate.
What are some alternative ways of making books accessible and exciting when they are on display?
You can use multimedia technology:
Turning the Pages http://www.bl.uk/collections/treasures/digitisation3.html is a technology developed by the British Library to provide a realistic virtual experience of some of our books. The developer, Michael Stocking of Armadillo Systems, takes such great pains to be realistic that he researches and recreates the typical light readings for the kinds of buildings and locations where the books were created. He films the turning of the pages with the exact weight, drop and slide of that particular kind of paper or vellum. Turning the Pages was developed to sit alongside the real thing in gallery displays, though it is also available online. The British Library intends to develop animation that places these books in contexts of production and use, connected to further learning tools.
You can be sensitive about different cultural paradigms of sacred space and the use of texts:
I said earlier that the public must be given sight of sacred texts. However, it is not a simple fact that sacred books must be displayed. Objections have been raised that the secular context of a public museum and the mingling of sacred texts from many faiths may not be appropriate for a spiritual experience. Because the act of showing does not fully open the text for interpretation and teaching, it is primarily an act of enabling spiritual contact – a kind of touching with the eyes. I will qualify this assertion, however, because sacred books have always been displayed for worshippers in sacred places, as a means of conveying scriptures and stories. Pages of illuminated manuscripts were opened on appropriate pages for the calendar. They incorporated vibrant illustrations so that those who could not read the words could read the pictures, not just for the sake of enjoying the decorations. Muslim children are taught to read Arabic from all angles as they sit around the Qu’ran. Having said this, people do come to see and be in the presence of significant books. In Hinduism, darshan is when the divinity of the text or figure is awoken and connects with the devotee through their eyes. Although the ritual of darshan may not be practised in other religions, it is a useful concept for understanding the intensity surrounding looking at icons in all cultures, the way viewers believe or sense the icon to be animated with an originating spirit.
There are things we can do to free such books from their habitual context. The Guru Granth Sahib (or Adi Granth) is a compilation of the writings of the ten Sikh Gurus (with scriptures of Islam and Hinduism), begun by the 5th Guru Arjun and completed by the last Guru Gobind Singh. Khushwant Singh in the catalogue for ‘Warm and Rich and Fearless’ (exhibition at Cartwright Hall, Bradford) writes ‘it is the source and not the object of prayer’. However, as the symbolic source of wisdom, the book itself is still treated with devotion. It is seen as the living embodiment of the Guru. No living person can be a Guru and idol worship is forbidden in Sikhism, so the Granth Sahib is the only Guru. Therefore it is venerated not as an object but as a living person. It was taken out of the British Library gallery into a Sikh school in Middlesex and treated with appropriate respect as part of the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail. 10,000 Sikhs visited to see it over one weekend. It was not in a museum case but placed on a canopied seat spread with special cloths. The Guru was awoken and put to bed each day.
You can take a poetic approach to interpretation:
There are many possibilities for involve artists and creative writers in exhibition interpretation and design, so that viewers are prompted to see the displayed books less as examples in an authoritative story but as resonant texts with many readings. Artists and writers can draw attention to the many ways you can connect one book to another, they can raise questions without using many words and they can stop you in your tracks before you move on to the next book. Rachel Lichtenstein’s book ‘A Little Dust Whispered’ produced from her Pearson Creative Research Fellowship might inspire you to think along these lines. See the online bookshop on http://www.bl.uk/