A Visit to Blackburn Museum

Blackburn Museum When thinking of literary heritage manuscripts and objects, it’s too easy to focus purely on those items that were created or once owned by notable authors. The holdings of Blackburn Museum go some way to redress the balance, showing the importance of the collector in preserving our literary heritage.

Blackburn is not a town that is renowned for its cultural impact. In the 18th century, it became known as a key town in the burgeoning textile industry, one of many North West towns that was to benefit from the expanding cotton industry over the course of almost two centuries. Today, all that is left of this boom in Blackburn are the grand buildings, such as the town hall or the refurbished Waterloo Pavilions. The famous Thwaites Brewery, a feature of the town since 1807, is the last remaining business from Blackburn’s industrial past. The collection of R.E. Hart at the Blackburn Museum is another sign of the town’s affluent history. Continue reading


Writers in Their Place: From the Romantic to the Domestic

Seamus_Heaney_Photograph_Edit  The places in which writers lived and worked become inextricably linked with their art within the public consciousness. Would the works of Wordsworth have captured the imaginations of such a large audience, and be held as treasures of the nation’s culture, if it was not for his poetic rendering of the Lake District? Does it matter that Shakespeare’s true home was outside of the London society he was observing and satirising? How would Dickens’s work be different if he had chosen a rural life rather than his metropolitan existence? These are perhaps unanswerable questions, but the notion that place has an artistic power is a persistent one. Continue reading

The English Literary Heritage Survey: Some Early Thoughts

bronte-parsonage-museum[1]The English Literary Heritage project has been conducting a survey for the past few months, and it is beginning to yield some interesting insight. What visitors to museums, archives and literary houses are telling us partly builds upon expectations but also reveals different priorities for both individuals and groups.

The emerging reasons for people to visit literary exhibitions and houses are not too surprising. The majority of people want to see more of a subject they already know something about, rather than learn something new. This is to be expected, as much of the draw of seeing manuscripts and other literary objects more often than not relies on an established relationship with a specific author’s work. More surprising, are the things that people value within the museum context. Continue reading

Literary Apps: Museums Without Walls?

281851582_979263862001_110606TheWastelandApp-4788967While web-based applications such as ‘Turning the Pages’ offer a good opportunity to access precious and rare manuscripts outside of formal, controlled environments, they do not necessarily provide a curated experience. In essence, they present single exhibits, individual manuscripts which do not have a narrative or interpretative shape. Yet, there is a growing trend in applications for tablet computers and other mobile devices, software that allows the user to explore a virtual exhibition of manuscripts and other material alongside original texts. These apps can be focused and curated, presenting an interpretative view of an author’s work and the archival materials surrounding its creation. Continue reading

Some Thoughts on ‘Turning the Pages’

Aerial-view-of-BL‘Turning the Pages’ is a software solution for the display of digital manuscripts. It has been in development by Armadillo Systems since 2001 and has become more sophisticated over time, allowing users to access manuscripts from a variety of devices and engage with them in different ways. The main advantage of the software is to create digital ‘books’, focussing on the ability to manipulate the image on screen by turning digital pages and thus giving a user something approaching the haptic or tactile experience of looking at physical manuscripts. The images give a good impression of the three-dimensional manuscript, and a safe way for many people to examine old vellums, parchments and the like without any fear of damaging the precious original. Continue reading

Call for Papers: English Literary Heritage Conference

18-19 September 2015

Institute of English Studies, Senate House, London

This interdisciplinary conference aims to consider the interpretation of literary heritage objects in archives, museums and literary houses. It aims to stimulate an inclusive discussion about new and innovative ways to preserve and exhibit literary manuscripts and objects, drawing on the expertise of academics, curators and archivists.

Literary Heritage may traditionally speak of the preservation of authors’ manuscripts, belongings and houses, but it also must include interpretation, understanding and the relationship of the artefacts to the individual, the community and the culture as a whole. Continue reading

Literary Letters in the Archive

Picture 1Out of all the manuscripts contained within a literary archive, authors’ letters perhaps promise the most naked insight into the mind of the artist. Quite often, these letters are intimate, confessional, the authors’ naked voices so different to published material or interviews where, knowing their words will be seen by a larger audience, they are on their best behaviour. This appearance of intimacy can be intoxicating for the researcher. It can often feel like eavesdropping on a private conversation, discovering an author’s unabridged opinions on everything from writing, to book, to political insights, as well as the tantalising pieces of gossipy trivia that reveal the author’s life, loves and more. But literary letters are much more complex documents than this sense of guard-down intimacy indicates. It is well known that the Romantic Poets would correspond with each other frequently, and many of these letter have become famous in their own right:

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The Challenges of Exhibiting Manuscripts

9256404614_622b8a2963_zLiterary manuscripts often lend themselves more to quiet and considered study than being displayed in a public space. Reading, for most people, is a solitary and thoughtful activity, usually undertaken in a comfortable chair, not standing in a public exhibition space jostling with other visitors. Manuscripts, unlike paintings or historical objects, are not just physical artefacts, they contain a plenitude of words and meanings that can be an overwhelming prospect for the museum visitor. As Jeff Cowton, curator at the Wordsworth Trust, writes, ‘To the initiated, a row of a favourite author’s manuscripts is something to dream of; to the uninitiated, such a display may fail to inspire even a wish to learn more’. To make those uninitiated connect with manuscripts and leave enlightened is the chief challenge of the literary exhibition. Continue reading

The Power of Revision

W.H. AudenThe study of manuscripts reveals many things about an author’s work, but the revisions the author made on the rough draft can be especially telling. William Wordsworth took the art of revision very seriously, spending over 50 years perfecting his longest poem, The Prelude (1799-1850), fragments of which can be seen in letters, notebooks and other manuscripts in the holdings of the Wordsworth Trust. Revisions and omission in later drafts reveal Wordsworth’s changing emphases and political views. Continue reading

Thoughts on Assembling a Literary Archive

A literary archive should not be viewed as a full and unadulterated view into the mind of the author. The act of assembling the archive, choosing what exactly is put into the archive, creates only a fractured, often stage-directed, image of authors and their work. A good example of this is the David Foster Wallace archive, assembled by Karen Green and Bonnie Nadell (his widow and agent respectively). The archive, as bought by the Harry Ransom Center, is carefully presented: there is little personal correspondence, no journals or other documents relating to Wallace’s intimate and private life. The archive concentrates on the work: typescripts, notebooks, rough drafts, the occasional scribbling of nascent ideas. Similarly, only items from Wallace’s library that he annotated were put into the archive, meaning only a slight fragment of Wallace’s literary life can be determined. Continue reading