A book on the wall

For a small, softly-spoken country, Scotland carries a large intellectual stick. Voltaire said that ‘we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’, and its influence during the Enlightenment would probably be hard to overstate. It’s difficult to find agreement on exactly what or when the Enlightenment was, but eighteenth century Scotland was well placed to participate, with a network of parish schools, an established church with a presbyterian structure, four universities, and a very active network of literati, keenly debating the scientific and philosophical issues of the day. I’m no expert on the Enlightenment, or on Scotland’s part in it, and my engagement with Northern Lights, an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, was that of the interested layperson, so I’ll not waste time attempting a close critique of its theses.

Exhibitions in large public institutions tend to cleave to some kind of academic consensus, in any case, so I’d be surprised if this exhibition’s take was significantly divergent from the well-maintained Wikipedia pages on topics related to the enlightenment, and as far as I can tell, it isn’t. While I was interested and entertained by its narrative of Scottish thought and scientific practice, I find myself with more to say about the exhibition as an utterance in the discourse of museology. Exhibitions are displays of objects, and whatever they have to say is best articulated around those objects — as I recently had occasion to observe with regard to non-fiction comics, if the text stands happily alone, it might be more properly regarded as a book or pamphlet. Of course, if the institution which mounts an exhibition is a library, it’s likely that, as here, the objects on display will themselves be books.

Books are probably the most important objects to an intellectual movement like the Enlightenment, although there are clearly other significant material residues, such as medical or scientific instruments, artworks and so forth. It was through books that grand international debates were conducted, and although much of the debate within Scotland was conducted in person, verbally, this was also likely to take the discussion of important publications as its starting point. Northern Lights, then, consists of a number of large vitrines in which are displayed books, letters, and a few scientific diagrams and maps, labelled with enough information to connect them to the broad narratives of the show. The objects on display are grouped according to seven broad themes, each of which is elucidated in a large text panel, mostly broken up into digestible paragraphs across several surfaces.

The books are fascinating objects in their own right, coming as they do from a period when commercial mechanical reproduction first hit its stride, but before the beginnings of anything that could be called a ‘mass-market’ in the contemporary sense. They were beautifully printed and bound, at a time when publishing was still a largely hand-craft business, and are in better condition than many present-day printings will possess in twenty years. The few visual or graphic documents are also striking, and the letters between significant figures of the Enlightenment will seem numinous to anyone for whom their names are meaningful. However, glass cases full of books and manuscript documents can only do so much to tell a story, even a story of literate thought.

In use, books have a wonderful transparency, the physical medium falling away from our cognitive engagement, until it, and even the linguistic material, seem absent from our experience of their arguments and narratives. In vitrines, fixed open at two pages out of hundreds, they are like the contents of lepidopterists’ pinned collections, dead, decontextualised specimens transfixed in a taxonomic order that freezes their discourse. They are forbiddingly opaque. Even in the unlikely event that the exhibition visitor reads the text displayed in each example, all they will gain is a series of fragments, a mosaic of significance too random to edify and too arbitrary to entertain. They are encountered, as all objects in museum displays and other exhibitions, as physical objects.

Sadly, the corporeal character of this encounter is not catered for in the design or text of the exhibition. If it is an exhibition of books, then surely the function of its curation is to elaborate a discourse around those paper, cloth and leather codices, around the displayed material which is available to the visitor’s gaze—but there is no visible, apprehensible connection between the objects on display and the interpretative materials which purport to explain them. We must simply take the curator’s word for the content of the books and their significance. Of course we do take their word, as we will in respect of any class of displayed object, but these books could have been literally any volumes of approximately the right vintage — I looked closely at no more than a handful, and in no case could I have confirmed, as a layperson, that they contained the text that the label claimed.

For me, an exhibition of books needs to tell me something about those physical objects: their manufacture, their distribution, their conservation, the history of the practices that intersect at the moment of their production. Instead, the documents displayed in Northern Lights function as a sort of three-dimensional bibliography. Like a bibliography their textual function is ancillary, and optional—and distributed, as they are, throughout the course of the text (the continuous prose of the interpretative displays), they actually distract the visitor from the narrative of the exhibition. They do very little even to illustrate the show’s account of the Scottish Enlightenment, but I would have been disappointed even if they had done that: the proper function of the objects in an exhibition is not to illustrate its narrative, but to constitute it.

Clearly an institution like the National Library of Scotland has many significant and beautiful books in its collection, and they are worthy of display, but for me, this exhibition is founded on a categorical error: the objects on library shelves are not texts, but the volumes in which those texts are inscribed, and it is only those volumes which are available for display. From this error proceeds everything that is problematic in the show: its text is only indirectly related to the objects on display. From this starting point, no amount of professional expertise can produce a truly engaging display—and there is considerable expertise in play here. The text is well-written and clearly knowledgeable; the graphic design is attractive and communicative; the objects are displayed well, and there is a high standard of finish in the case dressing and the labels. However, having bought the accompanying pamphlet, which I think contains the same text as the displays, I can’t see how a physical visit to the exhibition confers any real advantage. The show displays books in vitrines, but it is itself a book on the wall.

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