Behind the Scenes at the Library: Designing an English exhibition

2nd January 2018

Professor Daniel Wakelin, Fellow of St Hilda’s College and the Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography in the Faculty of English , has curated the exhibition Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page at the Bodleian Library in Oxford from 1 December 2017 to 22 April 2018. The exhibition illustrates the graphic design of handwritten manuscripts and inscriptions for the first thousand years of English, across the Middle Ages.

The exhibition emerges from Professor Wakelin’s teaching for the MSt. course in English and for the B Course of the English FHS course. In his classes for those courses, he introduces students to the making and design of the manuscripts in which most medieval literature survives. Several students are working as guides for short ‘taster’ tours in the exhibition gallery, especially with school groups and at the Bodleian’s ‘Library Late’ evening events. In this exhibition, as in his classes, Professor Wakelin seeks to introduce the full range of books in English from the Middle Ages.

To plan the exhibition, Professor Wakelin searched through several hundred of the medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian and chose eighty which would illustrate the variety of designs used for books in the Middle Ages, and grouped them into various aspects of medieval craftsmanship. The usual practice in manuscript studies is to move from one case study to another, but the process of searching widely, for the exhibition, revealed trends and patterns which the exhibition can bring out, and throws up overlooked curiosities that have not previously been central to medieval studies.

In particular, the exhibition covers not only the gorgeous treasures of the finest artists, as often seen in exhibitions of medieval manuscripts, but also the ingenuity of ordinary people writing for practical tasks. It shows how everyday writings – practical and scientific as well as literary – could involve ingenuity in design. The skill and inventiveness of ordinary craftspeople and amateurs have resonance today, when digital media let many people experiment in amateur design – word processing, social media, customized products.

To show the likeness to modern craft, Designing English is running until 11 March alongside Redesigning the Medieval Book, a display of contemporary book arts inspired by the exhibition, created through a workshop and competition. Together, the twin exhibitions show the creativity of medieval artisans in recording English and suggest ways in which that creativity might continue to inspire artists today.


Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page by curated by Professor Daniel WakelinDesigning English: Graphics on the Medieval Page by curated by Professor Daniel Wakelin