Mounting an exhibition
In addition to Cambridge University Library’s Exhibition Centre, where large public displays are mounted for five months at a time, the library also has a set of vitrines in one of its main corridors, where smaller displays run for period of six to eight weeks.*
Although already familiar with using the University Library, preparing the exhibition ‘Almshouses in England’ proved an ideal opportunity to explore more fully the collections of one of the great research libraries of the world.
Newton, the Library’s online catalogue, allows various searches including by author, title and subject heading. The subject heading scheme used is LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings), which does have a United States of America bias. The term almshouse in the United States is broad, encompassing all ages and the sick, while in England the almshouse is specifically for the aged poor. Nevertheless, typing in the term Almshouses – England into the online catalogue was a useful starting point.
Subject searches, though, even in a fully automated library catalogue, can only take you so far. To identify many of the eventual exhibits, lateral thinking was required as was detailed knowledge of materials which would throw useful light on the history of almshouses, even if only tangentially related to them.
The items selected were drawn from the collections of various library departments, including rare Books and Maps. Some came from the closed stacks, while others were found amongst the two million volumes stored on the open shelves.
For conservation reasons, manuscript material and incunabula (pre-1500 books) are excluded from being displayed in the corridor cases and photocopies were made of the maps selected, largely for reasons of space.
There were a total of eight cases to be filled, and the decision was made to group the material largely by theme, starting with a general introduction to the subject, and proceeding through the architecture and location of almshouses, a look at their founders and the rules and regulations they laid down, a case focussing on the almspeople themselves, one on almshouses and almspeople in art, and concluding with the all-important issue of fundraising.
A paper template of the display cases was available to plan the layout of the items and captions within the cases. Once finalised, a sketch was made of the items to be included and their positions in each case.
Written guidelines were followed for drafting the captions, to help with the uniformity of text and specifying font sizes to make labels easy to read. The library classmarks were given, to assist readers who might be interested in retrieving the material at a later date.
A sample caption, from the case on Almshouses and almspeople in art, read:
The spirit of care: the eight-hundred-year story of St John’s Hospital, Bath
Bath: St John’s Hospital, 1988
Watercolours of Bellott’s Hospital by Henry Venn Lansdown, painted before it was rebuilt in 1859.
9001.b.6544 p. 75
Mounting the exhibition was a surprisingly speedy process compared with the preparation, searching, assessment of items for suitability, caption- writing, and experimentation of layouts on the paper templates, which had been spread over several month.
This final stage was completed with the assistance of one of the Exhibition Officers, in part for safety reasons – the lids of the large old metal cases need two people to lift them. The Exhibition Officers also bring expertise in using book cushions and cradles to support the exhibits, and book snakes and transparent tape (an acid-free archival polyester plastic) to keep pages open.
In addition to the physical display, which was on display from 23 March to 26 May 2012, an online version was created, which can be viewed at
The criteria for choosing images for the online version of the exhibition were:
- visual appeal
- suitability for viewing on-screen
- freedom from copyright issues
Once selected, the items were sent to Imaging Services, and the resulting graphics and exhibition text were worked into final form.
The online environment made it possible to include a hand coloured illustration which couldn’t be used in the physical exhibition for conservation reasons, and to have images from more than one opening from the same book, which of course wasn’t possible in the physical exhibition!
* these corridor exhibitions have now been replaced by smaller and shorter exhibitions in the main Entrance Hall.
[A version of this article was first published in the FACHRS newsletter Vol 14 Issue 2 July 2013 pp. 12-13]