Impact Case Study: Designing English
We are always looking for new ways to share the benefits of our research with a wide audience and we employ a variety of channels and innovative methods to assist its social impact, from theatrical productions to films, books, school workshops, games, apps, public engagement events, art, and more! We've asked a selection of our researchers to explain the different ways they are sharing their research. In the Impact Case Study below, you can learn about how Professor Daniel Wakelin curated an exhibition based on his research and invited contemporary artists to respond to the artefacts. You will be able to browse all the case studies in the Research section of the website.
Over winter 2017 to 2018, I was guest curator for an exhibition in the Weston Library in Oxford: Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page. (If you missed the exhibition, you can still buy the beautifully illustrated book.) It built on my research into the creativity of the people who made medieval books by hand—as all books in English were made before the 1470s. I wanted to give others the chance to appreciate that creative flair of the makers of books. We showed lots of the lavish gilded books which we tend to think of when we mention medieval manuscripts, but also lots of books which were less flamboyant in appearance but which, even so, showed the ingenuity of their makers in working out how to present English on the page. In an age where all books were hand-made, anybody literate could make one, and the rules of design were less firm. My favourite was a book which displayed, in complicated folds and interlocking words and pictures an ‘almanac’ or manual of practical information (digitized here). The drawings were not lavish, but each month unfolded three different ways to show the tasks of the farmer, the signs of the zodiac and the saints of the Church that month—all aspects of life encompassed on each leaf.
Over 50,000 people came to the exhibition and hundreds to events in the evenings or for visiting schools. It was gratifying to read in the Visitors’ Book of people’s delight and surprise at the artefacts, and to the captions in which I tried to shake up people’s expectations of medieval craft.
We also invited contemporary artists to the library to see the exhibits a few months before hoping that they would shake up their own work in the light of what they’d seen. We set a competition for them to design a new piece of ‘book art’—an artwork like a kind of book (often a very strange kind)—and showed the winning designs and a couple of dozen others in a second exhibition called Redesigning the Medieval Book. The artists responded with wit and invention to the medieval books they saw, creating not pastiches but pieces unmistakably modern, yet which echoed the ingenious ideas or strange solutions of medieval scribes. When I interviewed the artists a couple of years on, many had continued to use new techniques they’d developed in responding to medieval books. Some were selling their entries to galleries or, in multiples, online; some had taken up further projects responding to libraries’ collections as ‘artist in residence’ or similar.
I wonder what the original makers of medieval books would think, if they knew that, for instance, their almanac of faith, farm and cosmos had inspired the artist Sue Doggett to borrow the design for a new almanac of feminist heroes instead, forged from a pair of her old suede boots!
—Daniel Wakelin, Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography