Gifts and Books: a new Bodleian exhibition curated by Dr Nicholas Perkins

person gifting another person a book

A major exhibition curated by Dr Nicholas Perkins is currently on at the Weston Library in Oxford (the Bodleian’s special collections library) until 29 October 2023.

Gifts are fundamental to human societies. Using the Bodleian’s amazing collections, as well as items generously lent by other institutions and individuals, the exhibition explores the relationship between books and gifts. It includes books that were precious gift objects, but also narratives about generosity, exchange and the burdens that gifts may impose. In addition, it suggests the ways in which storytelling itself can be a kind of gift.

The earliest item is a Sumerian clay tablet recording a legend about epic hero Gilgamesh, dating to c.2000 BCE. The most recent is a book that was finished a few weeks ago – a vibrant pop-up by book artist Paul Johnson, which is inspired by poetry and music as a form of creative gift. Alongside this, there are precious manuscripts, early book tokens, political and campaigning materials, and books and items by or for William Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth I, Philip Pullman, Patience Agbabi, Francis Bacon, Shirley Hughes, Percy Shelley, and many many more.

Nicholas Perkins commented, ‘It’s a project that has been planned for several years, and flows from my own research into gifts, objects and exchange in medieval literature. The exhibition has plenty of extraordinary medieval items, including the Horn of Ulf from York Minster, given to the church there about a thousand years ago, but it has been very exciting to work on material from many cultures and across a huge timespan. I can’t wait for the doors to open and to see what people make of it.’

Nicholas Perkins was interviewed about some of the extraordinary items in the exhibition by the BBC’s Jonny Dymond, at about 24 minutes into this programme:

The exhibition is open every day, from 16 June to 29 October, at the Weston Library, Broad Street, OX1 3BG. Entry is free.

Find out more on the Bodleian Libraries website.