Review: Marks of Genius

‘For books are the shrines where the Saint is, or is believed, to be; and you have built an Ark to save learning from deluge.’

So said Francis Bacon to Thomas Bodley after the opening of the renowned Bodleian library in 1602.  The Bodleian is considered to be a symbol of Oxford University’s thirst for learning, and comprises of several library sites around the city.  This weekend heralded the reopening of the New Bodleian site, now known as the Weston Library, which is situated on Broad Street.  After several years of restoration the library is now once again functioning as a major book depository and study area for students.  The renovation has not only updated the physical building, but also seemingly the library’s attitude towards public engagement, as it now comprises an open ground-floor site which includes a café and a gift shop.  This idea of bringing the public into a University space has been further initiated through the library’s free Marks of Genius exhibition, which opened along with the library this weekend, and offers members of the public a wonderful glimpse into the special collections held by the Bodleian.

Audubon 'Birds of America'
Audubon ‘Birds of America’

Marks of Genius showcases the treasures of the Bodleian’s collections, with its exhibits ranging from medieval manuscripts to maps, and ephemera to correspondence.  The exhibition considers the premise behind the term ‘genius,’ providing examples of academic, artistic and literary genius from AD 880 to the present day, and focuses on those works of genius held by the Bodleian to be the most beautiful, and often the most valuable, objects of their kind.  Advertised highlights of the collection include a First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, a dust-jacket design for The Hobbit annotated by J.R.R. Tolkein himself, and a copy of the Magna Carta.  The curators bravely chose not to group these objects in categories of epoch or nationality, which would create a linear structure and narrative flow.  Rather, the objects are arranged in a more sporadic way, under broader groupings relating them in different ways to the concept of ‘genius.’  Although this structure is perhaps confusing at first, it certainly enhanced the feeling that these remarkable objects are intrinsically linked through their creativity, their beauty and their ‘genius,’ and drew some interesting connections between familiar and unfamiliar treasures.

Felix Mendelssohn 'Schilflied'
Felix Mendelssohn ‘Schilflied’

Crowds are naturally drawn to the more famous items in the collection, particularly the Tolkein dust-jacket, the Shakespearian First Folio and the Magna Carta.  The exhibition provides a wonderful opportunity to view these celebrated items, many of which hold a national significance, and it is very rare to be given the opportunity to admire them closely.  However, the myriad of other items in the exhibition should certainly not be underestimated.  Less famous, but equally beautiful, artefacts in the exhibition include William Morris’ manuscript of the Odes of Horace, a beautifully illuminated book by the Victorian writer and designer, a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s 1687 Philosophae Naturalis principa Mathematica, and an example of Jane Austen’s manuscript juvenilia.  The collection encompasses Ottoman manuscripts, seventeenth century Japanese scrolls, ancient cartography and letters from such celebrated figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein.  The variety of objects on display offers something to all visitors, with the scientifically-minded, the literary, and the geographically-inclined guests able to find plenty to suit their tastes.

'The Hobbit' dust jacket © Bodleian Libraries
‘The Hobbit’ dust jacket. Image: Bodleian Libraries

By opening its doors to families and tourists, the Bodleian allows members of the public a glimpse of the artefacts normally reserved for a privileged group of academics. This friendly and welcoming attitude clearly made a good impression on visitors, and the weekend’s entertainment extended to a printing press working in the hall, and a jazz band serenading guests in the café.  Proudly displaying its greatest treasures to the world, the Bodleian has made a step forward in bridging the gap between the public and academia, and should certainly be applauded for doing so.  This exhibition is remarkable in its beauty and the rarity of its objects, but enjoyment of it is not limited to bibliophiles.  Rather, this is an exhibition for anyone interested in the founding moments of ‘genius’ in the history of human civilization. 

S. Mitchell

Marks of Genius: Masterpieces from the Collections of the Bodleian Libraries runs from 21 March 2015 to 20 September 2015.  Admission is free and the exhibition is open daily; the full list of exhibits can be found here.

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