Working at John Rylands Library and wandering through its wonderful Neo-Gothic architecture, it doesn’t require much encouragement to engage the darker side of the imagination. I have lost count of the occasions, particularly around the arrival of winter with its gloomy mornings and swiftly dark evenings, that I have conjured up all manner of ghostly goings and jumped at my own shadow.
It was around this time in 2012 that I came up with the idea for the an exhibition. I decided I wanted to uncover some of the more macabre items in our collections, objects not automatically associated with an academic library. I must admit that the ghoulish and ghastly have always been a passion of mine. I’m sure I can trace this back to the hours I spent sneaking a look at my Grandad’s copy of Leonard de Vries anthology of Illustrated Police News articles, the aptly named ‘Orrible Murder. A copy is available at the Main Library, should you wish to peruse it.
I decided that my exhibition should be a collection of items that spoke for themselves, each with their own miserable story to tell, hence the title A Morbid Miscellany. This worked out well for my research but my final chosen items for display did end up having an underlying theme. From the Royal College of Physicians pamphlet advising cure and prevention of the Bubonic Plague, the lock of William Wordsworth’s hair, a Victorian advertisement for a body-snatcher proof tomb to the autographs of Abraham Lincoln, Marie Antoinette and Henry VIII (all connected by the theme of assassination and execution) the subject of death was a strong presence.
Part of the Hargreaves-Mawdsley archive, it commemorates a Norman Hargreaves Mawdsley and was stored in a large box that contained many items I felt would probably have held great sentimental value to their owner. The penny was stashed between postcards, cassette tapes, letters and a box that had once contained a piece of wedding cake. Looking through these personal items I became very curious as to who the owner may have been and what the story behind each memento could be. Maybe this is a whole different exhibition in itself.
My favourite item in the exhibition is the one I personally find the strangest. The remains of John Dalton’s eyeballs. I heard rumors that the Cumberland born, Manchester based chemist, meteorologist and physicists eyeballs had been preserved and were somewhere in the library. I knew we held what remained of his papers, these were passed to us for safe keeping by Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society after suffering bomb damage in the Second World War, but where were his eyes?
After hearing they were stored at the Main Library with the Medical Collections, I contacted James Peters, Medical Archivist, who informed me the eyes were now, quite appropriately, at MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry). On further research, I learned Dalton requested his eyes be left to medical science as he suffered from colour blindness and wanted them to be used to explore a theory he had about the affliction . The theory he had turned out to be wrong but due to his commitment to understanding the condition, colour blindness is sometimes refered to as Daltonism. I am not sure why the eyes were then preserved but since being on display they have proven very popular with younger visitors.
The only disappointment I had with my exhibition was that I couldn’t find any examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in the collections. I shall leave it to the reader to look this term up. I think we’ve had enough of the gruesome for one day.
Morbid Miscellany is on until 31st January 2014, curator tours Saturday 7th December & Tuesday 14th January. Both 2pm-3pm.
Forthcoming AMARC Meeting at The John Rylands Library (rylandscollections.wordpress.com)