Monday, 23 January 2012

Handwritten - an exhibition at the NLA

If you're in Canberra, as well as all the publicity for the NGA's summer blockbuster exhibition you may have noticed some of the buses are carrying adverts for 'Handwritten - ten centuries of manuscripts from staatsbibliothek zu berlin' at the National Library.
Last Sunday, as well as taking an old film camera for a walk round Canberra (part of the photography project) I went to this.

For some inexplicable reason  I have always been  interested in old documents, something got me started in digitisation as a means of preservation for a the relics of a culture on the other side of the world.
This fascination goes back to when I was child in Stirling, Scotland and the main library used to have this display of the town records and transcriptions. And one day I realised that all this stuff about people being fined for having dungheaps where they shouldn’t actually told you stuff about how the town was laid out and how it functioned – something that years later gave me a great deal of insight into the whys of  digitisation preservation and reuse.

The exhibition itself is quite small and unexpectedly popular so you need to book online, even though it's free. This can mean that you get a bunching effect round about the hour breaks so I'd suggest that being fashionably late, by which time the crowd has thinned a bit.

There are some quite nice medieval manuscripts including a very plain matter of fact ninth century copy of the Aeneid, as well as lome late medieval examples and herbals, but no examples of correspondence or charters from before the mid 1400's ( a letter to one of the Medici). From then on it's all the correspondence of the rich and famous, Michaelangelo,  Volta, Humboldt, Darwin, Cook, Einstein and the rest, not to mention Dostoevsky and Marx.
Most of the letters are fairly prosaic, Darwin for example writes about sea temperature, but what is interesting is to track how handwriting evolved, and also what crappy writing the prolific correspondents of any age developed through the need to write a lot, and quickly.

It's also not just text, there' also a selection of various handwritten musical manuscripts which demonstrate that the great composers were just as messy as the rest of us.

Inevitably, being from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, there's a focus on German authors and scientists, but even that demonstrates the internationalism of the day, for example the correspondence of the Forsters - who despite their name were solidly German - who sailed with Cook.
Tellingly, the exhibition ends with a typwritten page.

All in all quite a nice little exhibition, and well worth spending 30-45 minutes enjoying.

There's an exhibition website with booking instructions, plus a blog giving useful background that's worth a read before visiting.

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