This blog post documents my experience as a Graduate Library Trainee assisting at the ‘Introduction to Bodleian Libraries Special Collections’ event, held for History of Art undergraduate and graduate students at the Taylor Institution Library in December 2021.
Across the libraries, we hold a myriad of intriguing and unique items. Still, it may be difficult for readers to know how to find these, and where to start. It is here where the then Subject Librarian for Art & Architecture Librarian and Italian Literature & Language, Clare Hills-Nova, was able to draw upon her knowledge of the Bodleian Libraries’ collections to introduce History of Art students to a few of our less well-known holdings.
Since having arrived at the Sackler in September 2021, I have been fortunate to spend plenty of time around visual culture materials. I’ve arranged a Japanese photobook display (in support of the Ashmolean’s Tokyo! exhibition), relabelled items from the WJ Strachan collection, and processed new publications about architects and artists on a broad range of periods and geographic areas. This is a far cry from my undergraduate haunts of law statutes and case reports – albeit a very welcome change. When Clare asked me to support the event she was planning for the History of Art Department’s students, and subsequently attend it, I was more than happy.
Artist interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (14th Century – 21st Century)
The event comprised two parts. The first, held in the Voltaire Room, expanded upon the Taylorian’s exhibition on Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy, which my fellow Trainee Malcolm Spencer has so wonderfully discussed. The exhibition’s curator, Professor Gervase Rosser led a presentation here – titled ‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy – on artists’ interpretations of the themes expressed in the Comedy.
This incorporated a vast range of work and approaches, as Professor Rosser traced the fluctuating reception of Dante’s Divine Comedy through the centuries. The talk (and display) included: a facsimile of one of the earliest illustrated Dante manuscripts of the 1330s; an edition of Doré’s seminal engravings, through which he became considered a ‘master of the visually dramatic narrative’ (Angel, 2014) (see image below, line 2, tile 1); and American artist Leonard Baskin’s compelling illustrations (1969). Also on view were some of the many recent translations of the Divine Comedy — some of them with striking book covers and other illustrative material.
In advance of this, Malcolm and I gathered together items on artists’ engagement with Dante from our libraries.
Athanasius Kircher’s L’Arca di Noë (Amsterdam, 1675)
The second part of the event took place in the Taylorian’s Room 2, and showcased other works from the Sackler, Taylorian and Weston Libraries’ Special Collections. These works ranged in date and publication location from 17th century Amsterdam to 1970s Tokyo, via 1960s Los Angeles. Here, the earliest work on display was Athanasius Kircher’s (1602-1680)L’Arca di Noë (Amsterdam, 1675). This publication includes, for example, as shown, Kircher’s illustrations of hieroglyphics. Kircher prolifically studied and attempted to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics – from his translations and commentaries, he became considered ‘one of the greatest polymaths in 17th-Century Europe’ (Klawitter, 2015).
The page on display at the event was a fold-out depiction of the interior of Noah’s Ark, showing Noah’s family members, barrels of food (or beer) and a menagerie of creatures. What struck me in this view was the measurements below the image, giving dimensions of the Ark itself. Beyond being a fascinating detail, this grounds the narrative in reality. For contemporaries, it made the Ark easier to conceive, and its magnificent nature – even including a pair of unicorns – that bit more believable.
F.G. Haverfield Collection (18th century interpretations of Classical art)
Turning to 18th century England, students could also see examples from the Sackler’s F. J. Haverfield Archive — specifically, from his collection of images of Romano-British pavement mosaics. On display was an illustration of themosaic found at Littlecote Park, Wiltshire – the ‘Orpheus’ mosaic – alongside Joseph Bonomi’s (1739-1808) original carpet and ceiling designs (1785) for Bowood House, Wiltshire. Bonomi, like many of his contemporaries such as the Adam brothers – John (1721-1792), Robert (1728-1792), and James (1732- 1794) – for whom he worked at various points, was inspired by classical art and architecture. It is thought that Haverfield may have included the Bonomi designs in his image collection because one of their sources of inspiration could have been the mosaics discovered around this time. Indeed, the carpet bears some resemblance in shape and content to the mosaic (and is perhaps why Haverfield included it in his collection). You can find more about these works in a blog post written by former Trainee, Chloe Bolsover. These parallels were instantly compelling. The students could see the physical copies displayed side-by-side, draw comparisons, and possibly gain an understanding of the thought processes underlying Haverfield’s collection.
W.J. Strachan Collection (mid-20th Century)
In the weeks preceding the event, Clare and I had explored the Strachan Collection of mid-20th century artists’ books, made in France, for potential display items. The Strachan Collection comprises over 250 items – with, according to Strachan himself, ‘every ‘ism” from Cubism to neo-realism represented. Therefore, deciding which items to include for the event was a challenge.
Ultimately, we decided to focus primarily on women, non-French and other less well-known artists. Among the selection was Leonor Fini’s beautiful lithographs for Shakespeare’s La Tempête (The Tempest), and Chinese artist Zao Wou-ki’s lithographs illustrating André Malraux’s La Tentation del’Occident. To me, Wou-ki’s work was especially well-suited for the ‘Show’ aspect of this event: his bright and gestural work seems to capture harsh emotions so succinctly: hard to miss.
Hans Bellmer, a German artist, was also on display. Bellmer is best known for creating a series of life-sized dolls and photographing them. The Nazi Party labelled this work as ‘degenerate’, causing him to flee to France in 1938, where he remained for the rest of his life. His interest in dolls can be seen in his engravings for Les Marionettes, through the somewhat disjointed limbs he illustrated. These are coloured with a distinct blue and yellow. For me, this made Bellmer’s work particularly effective for a Show-and-Tell: viewers can trace the lines of his drawings, and enjoy the unique colours against the brown paper.
Alongside these artists from the Strachan collection was Wifredo Lam’s etchings for L’antichambre de la Nature. Of Chinese and Afro-Cuban descent Lam became familiar with African spiritual rites. It was also at this point that he began to be influenced by Surrealism. In 1938, he moved to Paris and met members of the art and poetry scene. He began to work alongside Picasso and became more interested by Cubism. After the Nazis occupied Paris, Lam returned to Cuba. Here, he combined his multiple artistic influences with his cultural experiences to create works on Afro-Cuban identity. To me, these various influences make Lam’s work so unique and striking. His singular work was therefore very fitting for the event, both to look at and to appreciate the diversity of the 1930s Parisian art scene.
Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)
We also showed Edward (Ed) Ruscha’s iconic Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). Running through through West Hollywood, Ruscha pasted hundreds of his photographs of the Strip together to create an 8-metre linear image. He shot these photos from his pick-up truck, with a motorized Nikon camera positioned on top. Interestingly, Ruscha opted to set the lens to infinity, bringing everything in each image into equal focus. The result is remarkable, almost like a flattened montage. Every Building on the Sunset Strip arrived in a slim silver slipcase – deceptively, very small (18 cm.). As we unfolded it, we asked our building staff, again and again, to bring in another table to support the length of the ‘strip’. It ended up stretching almost the whole length of the Taylorian’s Room 2! In the images shown here, the viewer can grasp the extent of the Strip, as Ruscha perhaps intended it to be viewed (many museums display it in concertina format).
The Japanese Box (1960s-1970s)
The item I was personally most excited about was The Japanese Box, a facsimile edition (2001) of seminal photographic works produced in post-War Japan. Throughout this Michaelmas term 2021 at the Sackler Library, I worked with a lot of material on Japanese photography, particularly from the 1970s. I created a book display in conjunction with the Tokyo exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, and a corresponding blog post. Whilst researching for the post, I read a lot about Provoke, a 1960s-1970s avant-garde Japanese photography magazine, and its associated photographers. I developed a real love for the style and telos of this magazine. The photographers tasked themselves with reclaiming ‘documentation’ and they were keen to show life in 1970s Japan beyond the general perception of it as an economic powerhouse and post-war ideal. When Clare told me that the event for the History of Art students would include a box of recently-acquired facsimiles of the three issues of Provoke, alongside monographs by Provoke photographers,I was genuinely thrilled.
As with much of Japanese publishing it was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the design and packaging of this facsimile set. Characteristically, the black box containing the publications was itself striking: it was designed by Karl Lagerfeld. Inside, ‘designer’ plastic bands, labelled ‘The Japanese Box’, carefully held the six publications together. We spread them out on the table, ready for students to examine. Picking each volume up, we could see a rich array of photos of Japan and each artist’s personal experience of living there. This ranged from Nobuyoshi Araki’s photos of his honeymoon in Sentimental Journey (Senchimentaru na tabi), to student protests in Tokyo in Provoke. A few days ahead of the event, Clare asked me to introduce the event’s attendees to the box and its contents. Studying and presenting this set was a highlight of my traineeship. After my presentation several students asked to examine the Box’s contents further, and we discussed the Provoke movement while viewing our favourite images in the set.
At the event itself, the students appeared to be completely immersed in the works we showed. In the Voltaire Room, where Professor Gervase Rosser presented the Dante-inspired work, attendees asked questions about how different artists interpreted the themes of the Divine Comedy. In Room 2, the group lined up along the length of Every Building on the Sunset Strip, pointing at (for example) where pasted pictures cut up cars. L’Arca di Noë invited students to examine the interplay between imagination and reality,whilst others admired the various artists’ books and different mosaic patterns from the Haverfield collection. Although held on the last day of term, the event overran, with many attendees keen to continue examining and discussing the works on display. It was a huge success, and a tribute to the remarkable range of Special Collections held across the libraries. I cannot wait to explore them further.
Izzie Salter Graduate Trainee, Sackler Library
Angel, Sara. “‘Too Many Illustrations, Not Enough Glory’: Known for his Art for Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ Gustave Dore Merited Wider Fame.” Maclean’s (Toronto) 127.23 (2014): 66. Web. (available publicly here)
Strachan, WJ. The Artist and the Book in France. The 20th Century Livre D’artiste. London: Owen, 1969. Print. (Sackler Library Shelfmark: 914.2 Str)
The Japanese Photobook and the Sackler Library Display
Accompanying the Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition Tokyo: Art & Photography (29 July 2021 – 3 January 2022) a book display at the Sackler Library presents Japanese photobooks, books on Japanese photography and related exhibition catalogues. Over the coming weeks some of the Japanese photobooks held by the Sackler are on display (in the Ground Floor rotunda) for readers to take a closer look.
Works in the Bodleian Libraries’ collections (in particular, the Sackler Library and the Bodleian Japanese Library, or BJL) range from the 1965 book Why Mother Why, which features iconic photographer Hosoe Eikoh’s works, to multi-media artist Tokyo Rumando’s exhibition booklet from 2020. In her first European museum solo show, Tokyo Rumando presented her self-portrait photographs and films.
Since the end of the Second World War, Japan has dominated the international camera industry through companies such as Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Sony or Pentax (previously Asahi). Supported by these companies, responsible for creating some of the best cameras, lenses and films in the world, photo galleries such as Fuji Salon or Canon Salon have hosted short-term exhibitions. Amateur photography clubs promote competitions, exhibitions and periodicals. Asahi Camera, founded in 1926 by the Asahi Newspaper Company, is the voice of the All-Japan Association of Photographic Societies (AJAPS, Zennihon Shashin Renmei) and is the country’s oldest photography magazine. It presents photographs, evaluations of equipment and exhibition reviews. Another popular magazine, Nippon Camera, has existed since 1951. The internet now provides access to images and texts, but until recently, photo magazines were a crucial source of information on photography, including works from overseas. Photography in Japan has developed into a web of camera companies, clubs, galleries, publishers, magazines and online platforms. More than an important industry, it also is a socio-cultural system based on countless photographers and camera fans, creating a vast number of high-quality images. This ‘photography world’ is a parallel system to the ‘art world’ in Japan, which has also produced important photographic works.
The photobook has become central to the development of Japanese photography, particularly since the post-war years. Considering Japan’s long tradition of making high-quality paper and books, as well as the lack of photography exhibition and storage space in densely populated Japanese cities, the popularity of the photobook is not surprising. Even today, for many photographers the photobook remains the ultimate format in which to present their works. Iconic photobooks by Fukase Masahisa, Araki Nobuyoshi or Kawada Kikuji continue to inspire younger artists worldwide. Over the last 30 years there has been a growing interest in Japanese photography, both within and outside of Japan, which has resulted in an increasing number of exhibitions. Japanese photobooks have also become sought-after internationally.
Tokyo has been a major motif in Japanese photography, ranging from Kimura Ihei’s post-war documentation to Moriyama Daidō’s dynamic snapshots of his Shinjuku neighbourhood, Araki Nobuyoshi’s diaristic Ginza photographs and Ninagawa Mika’s colourful images of her urban life. The number of photographs is endless, and Tokyo as a motif and shooting location is as varied as the city itself. While ‘truly copying’ the outside world (as the Japanese term for photography ‘shashin’ suggests), Japanese photography has developed from a ‘realist’ approach in the early post-war years to a free form of expression often intertwined with photographers’ lives and subjective experiences. Tokyo in photography has had many faces and no doubt it will continue to change, develop and re-imagine itself in the future. Perhaps the most engaging photographs of Tokyo, however, will continue to be linked to the photographers’ lives and inner visions.
The Sackler Library’s book display seeks to provide a ‘taster’ of the diversity of Japanese photography, featuring well-known names, such as Araki and Moriyama, as well as younger female practitioners who are less well-known internationally, including Nagashima Yurie, Tonomura Hideka, and Tokyo Rumando. I hope that the display will inspire staff and students alike, reflecting both the quality of Japanese photography and the importance of the photobook as an artistic object in its own right. The work of many of these photographers has not yet been researched enough. The display runs during the course of Michaelmas term 2021, and beyond, and we invite you to take a closer look at the books!
Dr. Lena Fritsch Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Ashmolean Museum
Sackler books on show in the Ashmolean exhibition
The Sackler Library has lent three publications to the Ashmolean exhibition:
Kimura Ihei. Tokyo: Fall of 1945. Tokyo: Bunka-sha, 1946
Tsuzuki Kyoichi. Satellite of Love: Vanishing Beauty of Japanese ‘Love hotels’ . Tokyo: Asupekuto, 2001
Preparing the Display: My Personal Perspective as a Graduate Library Trainee
When I was asked to put together this display, I – of course – jumped at the opportunity. Since opening up to more readers (post-Covid), and reinstating its New Books Display, the Sackler Library is gradually returning to the bustle of its pre-Covid years. The Ashmolean’s advertising for the Tokyo exhibition is hard to miss: visitors to and passers-by the museum can see Ninagawa Mika’s bright photograph of two young women bowing their pink fringes towards each another, one of them adorned by a dazzling ‘Gucci’ clip (see above). I pass the Ashmolean poster daily, on my walk to work, and it never fails to catch my eye. Welcoming new and returning readers to the Sackler Library with a connected display seemed perfect timing. This post is a small insight into the process of setting up my first book display, and all I learned along the way.
I set about gathering the list of Tokyo photobooks held by the Sackler Library, compiled by the Ashmolean exhibition’s co-curator, Dr Lena Fritsch. Once all the books were assembled, I quickly learned that Japanese photography does not comprise only colour images of vibrant scenes of Tokyo’s nightlife as represented in the exhibition’s poster. Leafing through For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, I found countless greyscale shots. Without colour, the pictures are still remarkably expressive.
One of my preferred spreads from For a New World to Come is Shomei Tomatsu’s Oh! Shinjuku series (1969). These images show scenes of student protestors and railway passengers alongside moments from Tokyo nightlife. One of the most famous photos in the series, of a protestor clashing with the police, particularly stands out. Apparently, students had told Tomatsu about the protest (and the protestor’s) location, allowing the photographer to capture the moment. Through creating this display, I learned about the ‘are-bure-boke’ style: here, pictures are grainy or out-of-focus, just like Tomatsu’s shot. Its blurry look really captures the fast-moving pace of 1960s Tokyo: the student seems to glide through the air, showing you don’t always need bright colours to grasp the chaos of a place in time.
Looking at these images, you can see lots of parallels with other displayed books. We also have the works of Daidō Moriyama. In his introduction to Daido Moriyama (Tate, 2012) Simon Baker describes Moriyama as ‘one of Japan’s most important and influential photographers and photobook makers’, capturing the world since 1964. Inside, the book is undeniably varied – with a colour photography selection towards the end. Still, you cannot miss the familiar, blurred greyscale images throughout the book. In 1968, Moriyama joined a group called Provoke, and their eponymous magazine, where are-bure-boke was the trademark style. So, even by skimming photobooks, you can see a typical documentation style for 1960s Tokyo. As a staff member with no formal training in art history, there is something very satisfying about identifying themes and trends with a layman’s eye!
When I was organising the display I came across more than 1960s photography. For example, Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows (2015) includes works 1976-2007; her work is fascinating, ranging from shots of apartments to close-up images of human hands and skin. I decided to group photobooks covering a longer span of time together, for readers who want to delve deeper into the world of Japanese photography and see how it has evolved over time. (These groupings have now merged, as readers view and rearrange the books on display.)
The display also includes books normally housed in our offsite facility. Readers familiar with the Bodleian Libraries’ collections will know that we hold many, many books. Despite the plethora of libraries around Oxford, we cannot keep all of them in our onsite collections and a vast number are stored offsite. Books returned temporarily to onsite include, for example, other publications on Moriyama, as well as other artists’ photobooks.
Once all the books had arrived safely at the Sackler, I began putting up the display. With the exception of giving a helping hand during my work experience at a primary school, this was almost entirely new territory. Fortunately, the photobooks contain beautiful, powerful and intriguing images, which guided me in arranging the display. After a period of adjusting the table arrangements, the display was good to go.
When I was deciding where to place the books, there were two especially important points for me. Firstly, I knew I wanted to have a spread of books open: the display is, after all, about photography! Choosing which spread to have open was more difficult: I turned page after page, looking for the most (to me) compelling images. I eventually chose two photos from Nobuyoshi Araki: Tokyo Still Life, which show four young boys in conversation, and a striking woman sitting back and staring the camera down. To me, her gaze almost invites you in to look further at the books. (That said, our readers have enjoyed looking at the display since it went on show, and one of them subsequently changed the pages to display a sleeping cat. This is, of course, entirely welcome in the library. Our books are for readers to handle.)
Secondly, although all our books are available pick up and consider, I wanted Tokyo Rumando’s 2020 exhibition booklet to be particularly accessible. This is the most recent work on display, and by lesser-known female artist. I particularly wanted to encourage display browsers to engage with newer artists, to bring home how the world of Japanese photography world has evolved to present day. If you flick through her booklet, her work is a captivating story of female empowerment: between shots of women of all ages, clothes, and poses, she emerges as one of my new favourite creators. I hope everyone considering the display finds it as insightful as I did.
Sadly, for many of us, the last eighteen months have seen the cancellation, curtailment and delay of countless celebrations, including birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and achievements. At the very least, we’ve been forced to relocate those festivities online and connect with family and friends via laptops and phone screens in a kind of digital limbo.
Re-emerging into the real world from this pandemic-induced Purgatory, I recently returned to Oxford, a city that I’d previously called home for many years. My arrival overlapped with many of the restrictions of the last year and a half being (cautiously) rolled back. As the new Graduate Trainee at the Taylor Institution Library (known colloquially as the ‘Taylorian’), my first week saw the steady disappearance of one-way systems, sign-in slots and restricted access for readers to many of the library’s more intimate spaces.
Like the Bodleian Libraries more broadly, many institutions and historical personages have also found their usual cycles of anniversaries and commemorations disrupted by lockdown measures and restrictions on large gatherings. Excitingly, the prospect of more freedom for staff and readers at the University of Oxford has coincided with another cause for celebration: the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the great Italian poet and philosopher. As a result, the Taylor Institution Library, Weston Library and the Ashmolean Museum have prepared three exhibitions of works from among the libraries’ and museum’s many and varied holdings, which provide visions of, and insights into, the author’s most famous work, the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia). Works from the Taylorian’s collections are included in the Ashmolean and Weston displays. The Taylorian exhibition, ‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy’, meanwhile, also draws upon the collections of the Sackler Library, Oxford’s principal research location for the study of visual culture. Alongside my regular duties at the library (with which I’m slowly familiarising myself), I’ve been fortunate enough to join Clare Hills-Nova (Librarian in Charge, Sackler Library, and Subject Librarian for Italian Literature and Language at the Taylorian) and Professor Gervase Rosser, curatorial lead on all three Oxford Dante exhibitions, in their preparations for the display of prints, manuscripts and illustrated books spanning the seven hundred years since Dante’s passing.
The photos provided here offer a window on the range of texts and images that were chosen for the Taylorian exhibition and the process that went into preparing them for public display. I came into that process after Clare and Gervase had agreed on the works to be included and their gathering from the Taylorian’s rare books and manuscript holdings and other library locations was complete. The exhibition handlist includes an introduction to the works on display as well as a list of works they considered for inclusion.
Together, Clare and I spent an afternoon preparing the exhibition space – among the already impressive holdings of the library’s Voltaire Room.
A provisional placement of the exhibits according to the chronological layout agreed by Clare and Gervase gave us a sense of how the various prints, manuscripts and books would fit within the display cases.
Working with a number of old and rare editions – including some of the oldest books that I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand during my time in Oxford – required careful handling and the use of foam rests and ‘snakes’ (long, cotton-wrapped metal ‘beads’ designed to hold open books). Clare has a background in conservation, so provided an experienced eye and guiding hand throughout the process.
After this initial test-run of the display cases, I was tasked with assisting in the preparation of a bibliography to provide visitors to the exhibition with a comprehensive list of texts on display, and those consulted during the curation process. This not only gave me an excellent opportunity to re-familiarise myself with the Bodleian Libraries’ SOLO (‘Search Oxford Libraries Online’) catalogue, but required some further detective work to collect the full details of some of the more obscure texts included in the exhibition.
Although I’m familiar with this kind of work from my time researching and writing Russian history, and searching for texts catalogued in various forms of transliterated Cyrillic, the preparations for this exhibition included consideration of works in Italian, French and German too. Exploiting the automatic citation tool provided on the SOLO also exposed the potential drawback of relying on technology alone. Each of these languages inevitably has its own bibliographic conventions for the formatting of references (authors, titles, publishing info, etc.), not all of which are captured by auto-generation of citations. Obviously, I still have plenty to learn on that front being based in one of Oxford’s key research centres for modern languages and linguistics!
The whole process also brought home how inconsistent and incomplete some of the catalogue descriptions are within the Bodleian Libraries’ older collections and more unique items. This is quite the mountain to climb for those librarians faced with such a vast (and ever expanding) number of books, journals, periodicals and other ephemera in every language under the sun.
One particular exhibit of note is shown below:
It was wonderful to find such a striking connection between the history of Imperial Russia and Dante’s life and work!
The second set of photos below provides a view of the final layout for each display case. Supporting information to be included alongside the works was still being prepared at the time of taking, but a sense of the diversity of images and lasting influence of Dante’s work on artists, writers, print-makers and publishers across the world is evident already.
Students, faculty and staff from across the University are welcome to visit the Taylorian’s exhibition during library opening hours, from the beginning of Michaelmas term through December 2021. The parallel exhibitions marking Dante’s centenary celebrations are on display for a similar period: Ashmolean Museum (17 September 2021 – 9 January 2022) and Weston Library (8 September 2021 – 14 November 2021), which will give everyone interested in the life, history and influence of Dante the opportunity to explore the wider collections of the University.
Further Oxford Dante events, ranging from concerts to film screenings, to lectures and (of course!) at least one book launch celebrating the 700th anniversary are planned for autumn 2021.
Having now had an insight into the complexities involved in preparing, curating and displaying materials from our impressive Dante collections, the chance to come face-to-face with these exhibits sounds like Paradiso itself!
If you want to know more about Dante-related holdings in Oxford, please check out the Taylorian’s earlier blog posts in this regard (linked below):
The theme for the 2019 Disability History Month festivities in the United Kingdom is ‘Disability: Leadership, Resistance and Culture‘. To explore some important questions opened up by this focus, this reflection proposes three encouragements to further teaching and student research in disability history: displays of books held by the Bodleian Libraries at both the Sackler Library and the Continuing Education Library throughout Disability History Month (22 November to 22 December 2019); a presentation for the Disability History Workshop (Friday 22 November 2019, 9:00-13:00 in the History Faculty — all members of the University are welcome to attend the workshop and join us for lunch [please sign up here]); and an Oxford Reading Lists Online (‘ORLO’) site collating digital links to scholarship and media about how disability history is evidenced through design, visual cultures and historic environments.
As a historian of nineteenth- to twenty-first century design, it would be hubristic to extend my suggestions for prospective researchers in disability history much beyond in this period. That said, it is important to celebrate, as the 2013 BBC podcast series ‘Disability: A New History’ by Peter White advised by Professor David Turner of Swansea University eloquently did, the burgeoning field of historians assessing the documentation of medieval and early modern charitable institutions through the lens of disability history. Isabel Holowaty, Bodleian History Librarian, is collaborating with History Faculty colleagues in these earlier periods to develop a Disability History research guide (‘LibGuide’) addressing a wider chronological scope.
Enabling Histories of Design for Disability
Culture operates as both leadership and resistance. This discussion delves first into advocacy by disability activists witnessed in oral histories and archives. A brief stroll through some of the wealth of historical scholarship about designed objects and environments for disability ensues which hopes to facilitate new research.
Primary Sources: Advocacy
Three eighteenth- and nineteenth-century voices helped to identify the core thematics of this meditation: William Hay MP (1695-1755), Thérèse-Adèle Husson (1803-31) and Hyppolite van Landeghem (fl.1860s). Parliamentarian for Glyndebourne and Christ Church man, William Hay contested problematic Enlightenment equations of moral virtue with physical health and beauty in his 1754 essay ‘On Deformity’. Despite his use of the uncomfortable contemporary terminology of ‘deformity’, referencing an earlier essay by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Hay embraced his own bodily difference as an ‘advantage’, as he perceived it, because his spinal condition and stature activated his aptitude for education and sensibility. Author of numerous children’s novels, Thérèse-Adèle Husson underlined the importance of attending to and capturing the perspectives of creative self-advocates. The hand-written manuscript of Husson’s extraordinary autobiography, Reflections: The Life and Writings of a Young Blind Woman in Post-Revolutionary France, was sent to the Director of the Quinze-Vingts Hospital for the Blind, Paris in 1825, remaining neglected until recuperated by Professor Zina Weygand of the Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Métiers Paris in 2004 (Une jeune aveugle dans la France du XIXe siècle). Husson’s testimony of living with disability amidst a climate of social turmoil and resistance was translated by Weygand and Catherine Kudlick of San Francisco State University and is available as an e-book here. The polemical Victorian rhetoric of Hyppolite van Landeghem’s 1864 treatise on ‘Exile Schools’ has perhaps led to the neglect of the text’s evocation of the tensions between disempowering charity, isolation and community in designed environments for disability, a theme writ large in its ungainly title: Charity Mis-applied. When Restored to Society, after Having Been Immured for Several Years in Exile Schools, the Blind and the Deaf and Dumb Are Found to Be Incapable of Self-support. Why? The Question Considered and Answered.
These themes of advocacy, practice and representation also resonate in the archival traces of twentieth-century civil rights activists who played a vital role in securing the legislative requirements and commercial incentives that underpin design for disability. The commitment of Edward V Roberts (1939-95) to secure equity of intellectual and physical access to education and work was achieved through both civil disobedience and municipal council motions that implemented disabled-student university accommodation, ‘curb cuts’ throughout the road network and the formation of the first Center for Independent Living (Berkeley, California), all documented in the archives of the University of California at Berkeley. In the United Kingdom, Paddy Masefield OBE (1943-2012) is just one of many advocates documented in the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) at Buckinghamshire New University. His energy in advising government and cultural institutions generated ground-breaking apprenticeship and employment initiatives, as well as the foundation of influential and remunerative annual prizes to promote creativity for disability. The Masefield Award promotes ‘outstanding communication through art by a disabled person’.
Recent Scholarship: Histories of Design for Disability
Famous designers and powerful cultural institutions have engaged with design for disability in multiple ways. A vodcast of the keynote lecture for the Annual Design History Conference convened at the Department for Continuing Education in 2014, ‘How Disabled Design Changed the History of Modernism’ by Professor David Serlin of the University of San Diego, captures perspectives and case studies from disability history which remain rarely considered within most University curricula. How often does Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent’s 1948 commission for an accessible Usonian-hemicycle house from Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) figure in modern architectural histories?
Objects and Exhibitions
Displays of collections of work by disabled practitioners have promoted both empowerment and stigma. Art produced by mental health patients collected by the art historian and psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933) at the University of Heidelberg was both admired in Surrealist circles and denigrated in the 1938 Nazi Degenerate Art exhibition. In her Learning from madness: Brazilian modernism and global contemporary art, Kaira M. Cabañas of the University of Florida has revealed how in this interwar period the psychiatrists Osório César (1895-1979) and Nise da Silveira (1905-99) and the art critic Mário Pedrosa (1900-81) also championed the generative relationships between their disciplines collaborating and exhibiting the artwork of mental health patients in Brazil. The exhibition ‘Design for Independent Living’ at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988 brought innovative design for disability emerging in Scandinavia, the United States and the United Kingdom to a wider audience. The MoMA 2012 exhibition ‘Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000’ celebrated pedagogic toys at the heart of the special education systems devised by Friedrich Fröebel (1782-1952) and Maria Montessori (1870-1952). As the researchers and Royal College of Art student participants interviewed by Chris Ledgard for his 2015 BBC podcast ‘The Art of Walking Into Doors’ suggested, the complex relationships between dyslexia, dyspraxia and acuity in three-dimensional design are only just revealing themselves. In 2018, ‘Access + Ability’ organized by Cara McCarty and Rochelle Steiner and then ‘The Senses: Design Beyond Vision’ organized by Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York demonstrated these innovative design strategies and debates have now entered the digital age.
The Sackler Library book display also includes exhibition catalogues which show the vibrant presence of makers and museum audiences with disabilitity across the globe. The braille-embossed cover of the bi-lingual catalogue for the 1969 Sculpture for the Blind exhibition held at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town and the 1983 Please touch: animal sculpture exhibition at the British Museum exemplify how curatorial and museum interpretation teams have been engaging with under-represented communities for many years. The affirmation of the word ‘Unlimited’ used in the title of exhibitions both at the Edinburgh City Art Centre in 1981 and at the Southbank Centre in 2012 signals institutional activism. Richard Sandell’s, Jocelyn Dodd’s and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s thoughtful 2010 anthology, Re-presenting disability: activism and agency in the museum, considers strategies for enhancing such cultural leadership through museum interpretation strategies and collections. The quiet activism of the 2018 ‘Museum Benches’ project devised by the designer Shannon Finnegan critiques the limited accessibility actually afforded in cultural institutions, reminding us much still remains to be done. Digital app projects such as ‘LOLA’, conceived by Seth Truman and the non-profit technology firm Tech Kids Unlimited, engage with and for autistic children. In the ‘House of Memories’, National Museums Liverpool are raising awareness and creating collaborative networks between people living with dementia, care professionals and museums, demonstrating the direct social impact of culture so easily under-recognized and under-funded in the ongoing age of austerity.
As a canon of histories of design for disability emerges, scholarly research has constellated around the themes of symbolic representation, universal design and sensorial history. In her Designing disability: symbols, space and society, Elizabeth Guffey of Purchase College, State University of New York has examined the graphic design and historical agency of the ‘International Symbol of Access’. Aimi Hamraie of Vanderbilt University in Nashville assessed the theoretical and practical complexities of attempting to build according to ‘Universal Design’ principles (Building access: Universal Design and the politics of disability). Graham Pullin of the University of Dundee (Design meets disability) explored a set of design case studies for sensoriality, mobility and communication. In their Culture – theory – disability, Anne Waldschmidt, Hanjo Berressem and Moritz Ingwersen of the University of Cologne brought together the methodological challenge of calibrating social and cultural models of disability across the senses. Bess Williamson of the Art Institute of Chicago focused on how innovation in everyday industrial design was spurred on by accessibility activism in post-war America (Accessible America: a history of disability and design). Further book chapters and journal articles linked into my ORLO list afford thought-provoking case studies of design typologies from invalid and wheel chairs, hearing aids, ‘talking book’ shellac record discs, ‘disabled’ GI Joe and Barbie dolls and therapeutic amateur craft.
Visual Culture and Representation
A vast spectrum of representational positions from empathetic portraiture to horror film stereotyping or graphic-novel fantasy can be investigated through visual culture. Art History has delved deep into the analysis of the portraits of court ‘jesters’ by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez (1599-1660) and mental health by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). The pathetic fallacy expressed by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) in his nature studies undertaken whilst a patient at the St Paul Asylum in Saint Rémy have become part of our cultural mythology. The perceived porous boundary between creativity and physical-cognitive diversity has dominated the choice of subjects for biographical films about artists, from iconic subjects such as Van Gogh, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Camille Claudel (1865-1943) and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) to the ‘discovery’ of Séraphine Louis of Senlis (1864-1942) and Christy Brown (1932-81). The intersectionality of design and film histories has enhanced the analysis of the 1932 film ‘Freaks’ directed by Tod Browning (1880-1962). Banned by the British Board of Film Certification ‘because it exploited for commercial reasons the [sic] deformed people that it claimed to dignify’ the film, as been argued by Angela Smith, can be read as enacting resistant counter-narratives within the interwar eugenicist context of its production.
Disability history inhabits a plethora of historic environments. In her Medicine by design: the architect and the modern hospital Annemarie Adams of McGill University argued for the agency of hospitals’ architectural design in shaping modern medical treatments, sociability and technologies. Clare Hickman (Therapeutic landscapes) of the University of Chester established landscape design as a historical therapeutic practice within medical institutions. Leslie Topp of Birkbeck College University of London demonstrated the foundational place of Viennese sanatoria in histories of design for cognitive diversity (Freedom and the cage: modern architecture and psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890-1914). Robin Jackson’s Discovering Camphill focussed on how the special needs educational environments of the transnational Camphill Movement originated in Aberdeen in the 1930s. Claire Edington (Beyond the asylum) of UC San Diego opened up colonial and global perspectives in her analysis of mental illness in French Colonial Vietnam. Design cultures of place impacts upon well-being, often subjugating and isolating, at times creating a sense of belonging and community.
Postgraduate research: MSt in the History of Design Dissertations and Conference Papers
Sustaining the leitmotif of design for disability across the syllabus for the MSt in the History of Design has facilitated exciting postgraduate research. Student essays have uncovered business histories of glass-eye manufacture in Germany (Liz Dotzauer MSt HoD 2013) and prosthetics in Britain (Richard Hefford-Hobbs MSt HoD 2019) during the First World War as well as the identity politics of visual cultures around running blades and Paralympians in the twenty-first century (Bry Leighton MSt HoD 2017). The Design History Society awarded Karen Price (MSt HoD 2017) a student grant to research her dissertation, which investigated archives and collections in the Orkney and Shetland Islands to assess the mental health amidst conflict evidenced through exhibitions of Second World War Servicemen’s toy craft [https://www.designhistorysociety.org/blog/view/report-dhs-student-travel-award-by-karen-price]. This project (and all MSt in the History of Design dissertations) are available in the Continuing Education Bodleian Library. Karen presented this research at an academic conference at University of Edinburgh in 2017. Whither next?….
Our abilities, physical and cognitive, are infinitely diverse and variable across our lifetimes. In attending to how the design of the material world and its cultural representation activates or hinders the expression of these abilities, these meditations have hoped to engage more scholars in continuing to forge the history of design for disability.
My thanks to Bodleian Libraries colleagues, Angela Carritt, Grace Brown, Clare Hills-Nova, Erin McNulty and Chantal van den Berg for their help in orchestrating both physical and virtual resources and to Jeannie Scott in the History Faculty for inviting me to join the Disability History Work Group.
Further resources (textual, visual, audio)History of Disability, Oxford Reading Lists Online (Please note: E-texts referenced in this blog and in the 'ORLO' reading list may be accessed by members of the University only. Hard copy versions of texts may also be found by searching SOLO.)
Extended Reading ListIntroductions to Disability History and Modern Visual/Material/Spatial Cultures
Boys, J., (ed.) (2017). Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader. London: Routledge.
Boys, J., (2014). Doing Disability Differently: An alternative handbook on architecture, disability and designing for everyday life. London: Routledge.
Fraser, B., 2018. Cognitive disability aesthetics : visual culture, disability representations, and the (in)visibility of cognitive difference.
Guffey, E., (2017). Designing disability: Symbols, space and society. London: Bloomsbury.
Hamraie, A. (2017). Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. University of Minnesota Press.
Humphries, S.; Gordon, P., (eds.) (1992). Out of Sight: The Experience of Disability 1900-1950. Northcote House.
Kitchin, R., (2000). Disability, space and society, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
Kuppers, P., (2019). Disability Arts and Culture : methods and approaches. Bristol: Intellect.
Kuppers, P., (2014). Studying disability arts and culture : an introduction. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan.
Masefield, P., 2006. Strength : broadsides from disability on the arts, Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.
Pullin, G., (2011). Design meets Disability. MIT Press.
Siebers, T., 2010. Disability aesthetics. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press.
Waldschmidt, A., Berressem, H. & Ingwersen, M., 2017. Culture - theory - disability : encounters between disability studies and cultural studies, Bielefeld.
Kleege, G., (2018). More than meets the eye : what blindness brings to art. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lindgren, K.A.; DeLuca, D.; Napoli, D.J., (2008). Signs and voices : deaf culture, identity, language, and arts. Washington, D.C. : Gallaudet University Press.
Mirzoeff, N., (1995). Silent poetry: deafness, sign, and visual culture in modern France. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Shaw, C.L., (2017). Deaf in the USSR : marginality, community, and Soviet identity, 1917-1991, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Designed Environments for Disability
Adams, A., (2008). Medicine by design : the architect and the modern hospital, 1893-1943, Minneapolis ; London: University of Minnesota Press.
Barlett, P.; Weight, D., (eds.). Outside the walls of the asylum: The history of care in the community 1750-2000. Athlone Press.
Cook, G.C., (2004). Victorian incurables : a history of the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, Putney, Spennymoor: Memoir Club.
Dale, P.; Melling, J., (2006). Mental illness and learning disability since 1850 : finding a place for mental disorder in the United Kingdom. London : Routledge.
Edington, C., (2019). Beyond the Asylum: Mental Illness in French Colonial Vietnam. New York: Cornell University Press.
Hickman, C., (2013). Therapeutic landscapes : a history of English hospital gardens since 1800, Manchester ; New York: Manchester University Press.
Jackson, R., (ed.) (2011). Discovering Camphill: new perspectives, research and developments. Floris Books.
Melling, J.; Forsythe, B., (1999). Insanity, institutions, and society, 1800-1914 : a social history of madness in comparative perspective, London: Routledge.
Topp, L.; Moran, J.; Andrews, J., (eds.) (2006). Madness, Architecture and the Built Environment: Psychiatric Spaces in Historical Context. London: Routledge.
Tupling, K. ; De Lange, A., 2018. Worship and disability : a kingdom for all. Cambridge: Grove Books.
Disability and Exhibitions
Anon, 2012. Unlimited : extraordinary new work by deaf and disabled artists, London: Southbank Centre.
Biggs, B. & Williamson, A., (2014). Art of the lived experiment. Liverpool: The Bluecoat.
Bordin, G. ; Polo D'Ambrosio, L. ; Hyams, J., (2010). Medicine in art, Los Angeles: J P Getty Museum.
Borensztein, L. & MacGregor, J.M., (2004). One is Adam, one is Superman : the outsider artists of Creative Growth. Published in conjunction with the exhibition "Leon Borensztein and his friends: portraits of artists with disabilities," organized by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Brown, C., (1954). My left foot. London: Secker & Warburg.
Coles, P., (1984). Please touch : an evaluation of the 'Please touch' exhibition at the British Museum 31st March to 8th May 1983, Dunfermline: Committee of Inquiry into the Arts and Disabled People.
Crawshaw, G., 2016. Shoddy : disability rights, textiles, recycling, history and fightback, Leeds: Gill Crawshaw.
Delin, A., Wright, S. & Prest, M., 2001. Adorn, equip : a national touring exhibition originated by The City Gallery, Leicester. Leicester: The City Gallery.
Eccles, T. & Jenkins, B., 1991. Attitude : [a project ability exhibition]. Glasgow: Project Ability.
Edinburgh City Art Centre, (1981). Artists unlimited : selected works by disabled artists & craftsmen. Edinburgh: City Art Centre.
Hayward Gallery, (1996). Beyond reason : art and psychosis : works from the Prinzhorn Collection, London: Hayward Gallery.
Jones, S. & Ritchie, E., 2007. The Studio Project : opening art practice. published in conjunction with the Different spaces exhibition, Studio Voltaire, London 22nd June - 8th July 2007 London : Intoart Projects.
McCarty, C., (1988). Designs for independent living : the Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 16-June 7, 1988., New York: The Museum.
Nolan, G., (1997). Designing exhibitions to include people with disabilities : a practical guide, Edinburgh: NMS Publishing.
Pearson, A. & Hughes, K., (1983). Please touch : animal sculpture ; catalogue of an exhibition at the British Museum, 31 March - 8 May 1983, London: British Museum.
Sandell, R., Dodd, J. & Garland-Thomson, R., 2010. Re-presenting disability : activism and agency in the museum, London: Routledge.
Shea, J., (1993). Defiance : art confronting disability, Stoke-on-Trent: City Museum & Art Gallery.
South African National Gallery, (1969). Sculpture for the blind, 1969 = Beeldhoukuns vir Blindes, Cape Town: s.n.
Goodley, D. & Moore, M., (2002). Disability arts against exclusion : people with learning difficulties and their performing arts, Kidderminster: BILD.
Keidan, L., Mitchell, C.J. & Vason, M., 2012. Access all areas : live art and disability. London: Live Art Development Agency.
Kuppers, P., (2003). Disability and contemporary performance : bodies on edge, New York ; London: Routledge.
Kuppers, P., (2013). Disability culture and community performance : find a strange and twisted shape. Basingstoke, Hampshire : Palgrave Macmillan.
Alaniz, J. & Halverson, P.D., 2014. Death, disability, and the superhero : the silver age and beyond. Jackson, Mississippi : University Press of Mississippi.
Ellis, K., (2015). Disability and popular culture : focusing passion, creating community and expressing defiance, Burlington.
Foss, C.; Gray, J.W.; Whalen, Z., (2016). Disability in comic books and graphic narratives, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire.
Raabe-Webber, T.; Plant, A., (2016). The incorrigibles : perspectives on disability visual arts in the 20th and 21st centuries, Birmingham: mac Birmingham.
Visual Culture and Cognitive/Mental Health
Blackshaw, G. & Topp, L., 2009. Madness and modernity : mental illness and the visual arts in Vienna 1900, Farnham: Lund Humphries.
Cabañas, K.M., (2019). Learning from madness : Brazilian modernism and global contemporary art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cross, S., 2010. Mediating madness : mental distress and cultural representation. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan.
Davies, F. & González, L., (2013). Madness, women and the power of art. Oxford : Inter-Disciplinary Press.
Groom, G.L., 2016. Van Gogh's Bedrooms. Chicago : Art Institute of Chicago.
Lapper, A. & Feldman, G., (2006). My life in my hands, London: Pocket.
MacGregor, J.M., (1989). The discovery of the art of the insane, Princeton ; Guildford: Princeton University Press.
Miller, E., (2008). The girl who spoke with pictures : autism through art, London: Jessica Kingsley.
Mullins, E. & Gogh, V. van, 2015. Van Gogh : the asylum year, London: Unicorn Press.
Nuss, P. et al., 2005. Journey into the heart of bipolarity : an artistic point of view. Montrouge, France : John Libbey Eurotext Publishing.
Prinzhorn, H.; Black, C., (2011). The art of insanity : an analysis of ten schizophrenic artists, Washington, D.C.?: Solar.
Schildkraut, J.J. & Otero, A., 1996. Depression and the spiritual in modern art : homage to Miró. Chichester: John Wiley.
Shoham, S.G., (2002). Art, crime, & madness : Gesualdo, Caravaggio, Genet, Van Gogh, Artaud, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Snell, R., (2017). Portraits of the insane : Théodore Géricault and the subject of psychotherapy, London: Karnac.
Tromans, N., 2011. Richard Dadd : the artist and the asylum, London: Tate Publishing.
Bodammer, E. & Schillmeier, M.W.J., (2010). Disability in German literature, film, and theater, Rochester, NY: Camden House.
Fraser, B., (2016). Cultures of representation: disability in world cinema contexts. E-book
Fraser, B., (2013). Disability Studies and Spanish Culture: Films, Novels, the Comic and the Public Exhibition, Liverpool University Press.
Kaes, A., (2009). Shell shock cinema: Weimar culture and the wounds of war. New York, NY.: Princeton University Press
Siddique, S.; Raphael, R., (2016). Transnational horror cinema : bodies of excess and the global grotesque.
Smith, A.M., (2011). Hideous progeny : disability, eugenics, and classic horror cinema, New York: Columbia University Press.
Niestorowicz, E.A., (2017). The world in the mind and sculpture of deafblind people, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Disability after Conflict
Alberti, S.J.M.M;, Tonks, H.; Midgley, J., (2014). War, art and surgery: the work of Henry Tonks & Julia Midgley. London : Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Anderson J., (2011). War, disability and rehabilitation in Britain: Soul of a Nation. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Bourke, J., (1996). Dismembering the male: men's bodies, Britain and the Great War. Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press.
Hutchinson, R., (2011). The silent weaver : the extraordinary life and work of Angus MacPhee, Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Ott, K., (ed.). (2002). Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics. London: New York University Press.
Reznick, J., (2004). Healing the nation: soldiers and the culture of caregiving in Britain during the Great War. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Serlin, D., (2004). Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Scruton, J., (1998). Stoke Mandeville Road to the Paralympics: fifty years of history. Brill: Peterhouse.
Taliaferro, W., (ed.). (1944). Medicine and the war. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press.
Wheatcroft, S., (2013). Worth saving : disabled children during the Second World War. Manchester : Manchester University Press.
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