THE POETICS OF EXHIBITION CATALOGUES

D. W. Krummel  Original

Brief comments read at the American Library Association convention in Chicago, July 9, 2000, before presentation of the Daniel J. and Katharine Kyes Leab Awards of the ALA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, July 9, 2000. An abridged revision will appear in American Libraries.

Little is written on the philosophy and theory of exhibit catalogues as literature. So let me use this brief meditation to talk about the topic. I do so based mostly on my work some years ago in mounting shows at the Newberry Library (Bill Towner, bless him, mentions some of them in his memoirs1), also in reading, describing, and reviewing exhibit catalogues over the years.2


Poetics is defined as the theory of literature; and there is some theory in my remarks, but it is well hidden, I hope, and probably as much Plato as Aristotle.3 For poetics, I suspect, one could substitute the word engineering (this would really clear the room here today). Architecture would also work, or even music, or dynamics, or method (or, God help us, methodology). The poetics (or engineering, or architecture, or method) applies both to the entries in the catalogue and to the catalogue as a whole; and it is the poetics (or the engineering, or architecture, or method) that tells us why exhibit catalogues can be important and exciting.

The point of an exhibit is to display important things in a library that might not be otherwise noticed, partly because there are so many other things in the collection. This is why the best exhibits are done by those who know the collection, and who sense what readers want to see. The entries in the catalogue—like the captions in the cases—and the catalogue itself, are essentially narrative promotion.

This means that the entries are usually unlike what one sees in library catalogues. AACR-2 practices are beside the point. What we need instead are details that tell the readers why they are there in the first place. Lest we bore our guests, the entries themselves need to be far shorter than MARC records, although MARC data are very useful. Instead, the captions need to include those very details for which cataloguers find their fingers slapped when they include them in "field notes." These details are what antiquarian booksellers spend many pleasant hours uncovering in order to sell the book. (Thus we save dealers’ catalogues, or clip their citations to file with our copies). The details are what reviewers talk about in evaluating current books. (It’s what makes the ancient Allibone’s ancient Critical Dictionary such a delight in studying nineteenth-century literary taste, for instance.) In other words, the point is to tell visitors how damn lucky they are to be there—much as good antiquarian booksellers will subtly tell you how damn lucky you are to be allowed the privilege of buying their books.


The catalogue as a whole also tells a story. The sequence, of books in the cases or the citations in the catalogue, assembles the story that justifies the event. Usually the argument proceeds chronologically; sometimes it is thematic, and it is alphabetic only out of desperation. The cases and the page layout—their space, arrangement, and logistics—work ruthlessly. At their happiest they make up a sonnet, at their most cryptic, haiku, but always most fittingly they are whatever the story calls for. The 1969 Berlioz exhibition at the V&A, for instance, was a maze of grottos, closets, and affectionate scenarios, dark and meandering but with tender discoveries around the next corner, much I think like Harold discovering Italy. The installation must have been atrociously expensive, but I think Hector would have loved it.4

What we see in the cases—the words in the poem in a sense—will reflect on much considered thought about painful options. Miniature books in dark rooms will be read like preciously obscure poems; if you are lucky to have an Audubon folio it is hard to show it (I suppose the poetic counterpart would be a haiku about a California hippopotamus). Condition is no less just as important. For a Henry Purcell show in Urbana I should dearly have loved to show the third folio, since Purcell set Shakespeare, and this rarest of the four came from Purcell’s lifetime. Alas, the Illinois copy is held together by Elmer’s glue and scotch tape, like cheap, sloppy writing. There are also always the smarties who love to complain, either in print or in gossip. Their poetics counterpart could be the editors who are forever improving your writing to make it sound less like you. The Breslauer-Folter exhibition at the Grolier Club of landmarks of bibliography is spectacular, and any rare book library that does not own the catalogue deserves to go out of business.5 But I know three titles that I think should have been shown instead. I won’t tell you what they are, since I don’t know what space was available is the cases, or whether handsome copies were even available.

Narratives tell stories, and stories usually have morals, or at least arguments. Those who hate books always love to be offended, but those who love books also often have problems with the morals of the story. I remember from the 1950s, in the LC Music Division, working with the late Edward Waters on the printed programs for the chamber music concerts in the auditorium named for Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. If the Library owned the holograph manuscript, it went on exhibit in the pavilion named for Gertrude Clarke Whittall. Mrs Whittall, who at the time was still living, was also a patron of concerts, and she never really enjoyed being reminded of Mrs Coolidge. In planning one concert that included the Bartók fifth quartet, I innocently asked if we would be showing the manuscript. Ed’s face turned very pale as he grabbed the phone to plead with the quartet to change the program. (They did.) This work was a Coolidge commission, and Mrs Whittall would not have liked it one bit.

The goal of the exhibit may be to make a statement, but it is not to lose friends: behind poetics necessarily lies politics. Not surprisingly, some of the best exhibit stories (unlike this one) never get told. The anthology of counterparts is limitless. I doubt that there are many overtly sexist exhibitions today. The saga of the LC Sigmund Freud exhibition may have a moral, although any point about psychiatrists being crazy is so well-known that it scarcely needs to be recalled.


On-line exhibit catalogues can reach a wider audience, if not necessarily a more appreciative one: the pilgrimage to the true relic is part of the experience, and the greater the effort, usually the stronger the experience. Exhibit catalogues also become historical landmarks when they are preserved, and when this happens the morals in their stories can change. Many exhibits are soon forgotten, but when the catalogues are rediscovered they may assume a new meaning. Stanley Morison’s great 1963 IPEX exhibition in London, for instance, now can be seen in terms of its two parts, or really, its two Carters. The less famous of the two may in fact be the more important. The British Museum part led to a wonderful 1967 coffee-table book entitled Printing and the Mind of Man.6 A high spot in the history of high-spot collecting, it reflects the presence of John Carter and Sotheby’s; but its heritage is still one we could usefully dig out for ourselves. The other part of the show, at Earl’s Court—the Eleventh International Printing Machinery and Allied Trades Exhibition, organized by the Association of British Manufacturers of Printers' Machinery, in other words Harry Carter’s part—is arguably the more important, for its influence on today’s flourishing scholarship in the history of printing technology, including, for instance, Gaskell’s New Introduction. (And if you don’t have a copy of the catalogue that includes both parts, good luck in finding it. )

As for the famous Houghton Library exhibition called "Marks in Books,"7 it still mostly confirms Ranganathan’s Fourth Law: "Libraries are for use." (Sorry about that, Roger.) The basic point to all exhibits, however, is really Ranganathan’s First Law instead: "Every book its reader." Ideally, library collection development balances the opposites of formula and instinct. The one is reflected in official policy, the other in a principle bravely enunciated by Stanley Pargellis: "when you see a good book, get it." One works through the explicit practices that develop general collections, the other works through the hustling that gives us great special collections. The one is a matter of engineering and leads into the metadata of the official catalogue, the other a matter of taste, in other words poetry, and it leads into the narratives of the exhibit case. To make its case in to the public sphere, the library needs both.


All of my points, of course, (counterparts perhaps to Aristotle’s unities of time, place, and action) mostly confirm what good rare book librarians already know. (I might think differently if I knew more about the theory of poetics, but I doubt it. The same goes for engineering, or architecture, or music, even history, at least as the subjects are taught as academic disciplines.) What librarians need mostly is the unmeasurable quality called "smarts," as well as expertise in what used to be called "book lore." (And any good Parisian intellectual can tell you that this is not to be confused with histoire du livre.) The more one is part of the community of expertise, the better the exhibition. The more you know your readers and your collections, the more effective the show. In order to learn this, do you really need a research methods course in library school—or ones in poetics, or music, or engineering, or architecture? This beats me. It’s really more useful, and usually more fun, to schmooze with the old geezers in the antiquarian book world. If you need to take a course in library school, seriously, my best advice is to make it one in children’s literature called story-telling.


REFERENCES

1Lawrence W. Towner, Past Imperfect: Essays on History, Libraries, and the Humanities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), passim.

2Among these are "An Edwardian Gentlemen’s Musical Exhibition," Music Library Association Notes, 32 (1976), 711-18, and the survey of exhibition catalogues on music printing in The Literature of Music Bibliography (Berkeley: Fallen Leaf Press, 1992), pp. 151-180.

3Earl Miner’s survey in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 929-38, suggests the prospects.

4 Berlioz and the Romantic Imagination: An Exhibition Organized by the Arts Council and the Victoria and Albert Museum on behalf of the Berlioz Centenary Committee in Cooperation with the French Government (London, 1969). My review is "Berlioz at the V & A," Musical Times, 111 (1971), 37-38.

5Bernard H. Breslauer and Roland Folter. Bibliography: Its History and Development (New York: Grolier Club, 1984).

6The bibliographical history of this event needs a study in its own right. The lavish folio-sized Printing and the Mind of Man: A Descriptive Catalogue Illustrating the Impact of Print on the Evolution of Western Civilization During Five Centuries , with Denys Hay’s introduction (London: Cassell; New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1967, and reissued) also appeared with a new introduction by Percy H. Muir, additional bibliographies by Peter Amelung, and a revised index (München: Karl Pressler, 1983). There are other editions, and a German version (John Carter, Bücher, die die Welt verändern: eine Kulturgeschichte Europas in Büchern, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1969; München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1976). These are not to be confused with original exhibit catalogue, a quarto-sized booklet entitled Printing and the Mind of Man. Assembled at the British Museum and at Earls Court, London 16-27 July 1963 (London: F. W. Bridges, 1963; 125 p., some copies have different pagination), of which the British Museum part was also issued separately.

7 Marks in Books, Shown and Explained: An Album of Facsimiles, with Preface and Annotations by Roger E. Stoddard; based on an exhibition at the Houghton Library Beginning Feb. 14, 1984 (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library, Harvard University, 1985.)