bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Did you make it to the BL exhibition on Henry VIII?

Posted in Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 27 September, 2009

If you did not, you have, of course, missed it now: it ended at the beginning of the month. And if I praise it and describe its riches, that may only serve to increase your frustration. I made it to London only in the last week of the show and what follows is meant not as a review but as a comment on what we can learn from it in terms of future exhibitions.

For this exhibition David Starkey was ‘guest curator’, a designation which could cover a wide spectrum of involvement from the highly engaged to the wilfully insouciant. There were certainly some features of the show that seemed trade-mark Starkey: for instance, the importance, in the early sections on portraits, with the captions attempting to read from the image an insight into the sitter. The exhibition, it must be said, was uneven in its chronological focus, with Wives Three to Six seemingly crammed into the last section, and Catherine of Aragon and her nemesis occupying the (English royal) lion’s share of the space. That, perhaps, reflects both a desire to shape the popular imagination, reiterating the now well-tried line that Henry’s first marriage lasted longer than all the others put together, but also to reflect a popular understanding in which the cataclysmic events of the 1530s were the pivotal moment of the reign. To judge from the evening I was there, and from what else I have heard, the show was certainly a success in terms of number of visitors through the doors. Which is all the more surprising considering what was, for me, the most significant feature of this display.

Being in a library, books were always going to feature heavily in the exhibition, and with that comes well-known difficulties. Books tend to be small items, in scripts illegible to many, around which people cram without quite knowing what it is they are supposed to be seeing. I would not suggest that the exhibition succeeded completely in overcoming those difficulties but what it certainly did do was make the most of these problematic objects. Drawing on the work of James Carley and others, the show emphasised the interest of Henry’s own marginalia in his books. It did this not just be noting their presence in an exhibit, but by providing replica pages next to the item, with a moving light-source literally to highlight the elements to which our attention, like the king’s before, was being drawn. I had not experienced this type of display before and it worked. At times, it was too ambitious: in one corner of the exhibition, where the light was supposed to rise and dim around you to connect a page with the objects shown nearby with which it related, I just could not work out what was meant to happen.  More generally, however, it acheived the tricky task of helping these exhibits accessible without ‘dumbing down’ their content.

It made me think that this could be a prototype for future exhibitions. My dream: let’s have one on Henry IV and his sons, to coincide with the centenary of the first Lancastrian’s death in four years’ time. There are, in the BL, many manuscripts associated with him, with his sons, particularly John and Humfrey, as well as with his grandson. And, as I can point out where Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, annotated his books, the technology they have used could be put to good effect. Is anybody at the BL reading and willing to take up this challenge?

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