The current Rooms of Wonder exhibition, which closes this Thursday, April 17, continues to attract enthusiastic viewers in its last weeks and days. On Saturday April 7, participants in the graduate student conference “Making Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Literary Culture”—a collaboration between UNC and Kings College, London—streamed into Wilson to see the show with the expert guidance of Professor Jessica Wolfe, who spoke at length about some of her favorite books on display.
Then the large group moved to the Pleasants Family Assembly Room to hear Dr. Pamela Smith, Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University, deliver the conference’s keynote address, “From Matter to Ideas: Making Natural Knowledge in Early Modern Europe.” Professor Smith examined Renaissance mining and metalworking and the codification of that industrial and artisanal knowledge in Early Modern manuscript and printed books, such as the woodcut-illustrated editions of Georg Bauer, or Agricola. The lecture, one in the English & Comparative Literature Department’s Critical Speaker series, is available in full in video at their site.
The picture above, while illustrating Professor Smith’s lecture, also demonstrates how strangely distorted the experience of books can be when mediated by modern digital technology. So do listen to (and watch) the lecture, but come in one last time if you can to behold the marvelous printed books lent by alumna Florence Fearrington for Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865.
A record-breaking number of people arrived at Wilson Library last night to view Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865 , an exhibition from the collection of alumna Florence Fearrington (A.B. 1958). The extraordinary assemblage of books, prints, and objects captivated an audience of over 200 students, faculty, and friends, who came from near and far. Exhibition goers had the opportunity to examine a range of important items that document the cabinets of curiosities phenomenon, from the first book to illustrate a specimen cabinet (1565) to a P. T. Barnum show bill advertising living wonders (1863).
Also on display were objects from the North Carolina Collection Gallery’s natural history holdings and the Rare Book Collection’s own Curiosities Cabinet (mostly non-codex examples from the history of the book), all of which recall the contents of Wunderkammers past and greatly enhanced the exhibition experience.
The overflowing crowd was also accommodated in a room on the other side of Wilson’s lobby, where a live audio-video stream enabled those seated there to follow the speaker’s every word and projected image.
MacGregor gave a sweeping survey of cabinets of curiosities, analyzing the degree to which many of the arresting renderings of Wunderkammers matched—or failed to match—their textual descriptions. It was an expert exploration of the topic, and appreciated by all in attendance. UNC is grateful to Mr. MacGregor, and, of course, to Ms. Fearrington for such a special evening.
The show will be up for the next two months, and we suspect that we’ll see many of you in the Saltarelli Exhibit Room again and again, as this is an exhibition that repays revisiting. Also, mark your calendars for a future Rooms of Wonder lecture on Saturday, April 5, by Prof. Pamela Smith of Columbia University.
It takes a lot of hard work to make an exhibition happen. There are labels and graphics, and, of course, the mounting of the actual items. The Rare Book Collection is lucky to have great colleagues in the Wilson Library Conservation Lab. They’ve been busy fabricating cradles to display safely the marvelous books lent by alumna Florence Fearrington for Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865. The show opens next week on Thursday February 20 at 5 p.m., with a viewing in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room, followed by a lecture from the leading authority on cabinets of curiosities, former Ashmolean Museum curator Arthur MacGregor. It should be a great evening, and we look forward to seeing you!
Halloween has passed. At the Rare Book Collection, however, ghostly apparitions continue to haunt our days.
Among the spectral appearances is this P. T. Barnum show bill from exactly 150 years ago today, announcing “The Ghost,” a performance at the famous American impresario’s museum. The ephemeral printing for November 16, 1863, was in Wilson Library’s Conservation Lab receiving treatment for display in the upcoming Rooms of Wonderexhibition. While most materials in that show will come from the collection of alumna/curator Florence Fearrington, the RBC will supply a few choice items such as this one, which testifies to the commercialization of the cabinet of curiosities concept in the mid-1800s. (A giant boy and giant girl are among the museum’s other attractions for the day.)
The nineteenth century was an era of scientific progress. It was also one that had a strong fascination with the supernatural. A recent donation to the RBC from Dr. Charles T. White, a volume of spiritualist writings, underscores this interest in the uncanny and suggests how spiritual doings were viewed as phenomena open to scientific inquiry. Inside this book, which has the spine title “Celestial Gems,” are a selection of texts and a detailed manuscript index.
The “General Index” begins with an alphabetical listing of the subjects and events in The Seeress of Prevorst, Being Revelations Concerning the Inner-life of Man, and the Inter-Diffusion of a World of Spirits in the One We Inhabit (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1845). This first work in the volume is an English translation of Justinus Kerner’s famous account of Friederike Hauffe, a sleepwalking clairovyant in a small town in Baden-Württenburg, Germany. Kerner was a poet and physician who came to know the woman.
Following Kerner’s classic work is Elements of Spiritual Philosophy; Being an Exposition of Interior Principles. Written by Spirits of the Sixth Circle. R.P. Ambler, Medium. The author of this rare 1852 Springfield, Massachusetts, imprint was a Universalist minister who claimed the power to speak for spirits, hence his self-identification as a “medium” on the title page. He briefly published a journal, The Spirit Messenger, issues of which are also present in “Celestial Gems.” For Ambler, communication with spirits was a new stage in religion and represented a release from traditional superstition, contrary to what we might think today.
The pages of this book have evidence of past owners and readers beyond the index. Most evocative are the items laid in. The unsettling albumen print above suggests a woman in a trance state, although lengthy photographic exposure times could necessitate an eerily frozen countenance. The “ADMIT BEARER” ticket found at another page might have permitted entrance to a staged mediumship séance, such as were not uncommon in the period.
One Elisha Thayer’s book label appears twice in the volume, although we can make no claims for his leaving these relics behind.
“Celestial Gems” is a particularly compelling and ironic example of the book as material object–a physical manifestation of an earlier era’s encounter with the immaterial world.
Book-loving sports fans were pleasantly surprised last night watching the UNC-Miami football game on the ESPN network. Although Chapel Hill was not victorious in the competition, its Rare Book Collection scored big, with a break segment featuring footage of the curator and a splendid folio in Wilson Library’s Grand Reading Room.
The book in question was the first volume of four constituting Albertus Seba’s Locupletissimi Rerum Naturalium Thesauri Accurata Descriptio, et Iconibus Artificiosissimis Expressio (Amsterdam, 1734-1765). A marvelous compendium illustrating the Dutch pharmacist’s collection of natural history specimens, it includes this print of a crocodile, which was used as the signature image of the Grolier Club exhibition Rooms of Wonder. We blogged about the exhibition in January, and now we’re delighted to announce that a version of it will be coming to Chapel Hill in February 2014, courtesy of collector/alumna Florence Fearrington.
The RBC copy of Seba had been out for an instructional session with Prof. Beth Grabowski’s printmaking students, who were seeking inspiration to execute linocuts for a bestiary. Just after that class, an ESPN cameraman–on campus for the big game–visited Wilson, eager to film. Although the videographer now works in sports, he told us he began his career in public broadcasting and was fond of shooting ” historical” segments to air during breaks and half-time. He had firm fantasies about a librarian pushing a book truck and turning pages of a rare tome. We were able to accommodate.
So you weren’t hallucinating while tuned in to the tube last night. Books and beasts in the middle of a sporting event, it was real, if also somewhat surreal.
Wilson Library’s Grand Reading Room is truly its own Room of Wonder.