On Monday, we talked to Dr. Russ McConnell, curator of Grammar-Land, which will be on display in the reading room of Hoole’s lobby through the end of November. He discussed his research and the intellectual background to his show. Today, he will share how he put it together and best practices he’d recommend to future curators.
What steps did you go through to create your exhibition?
I met Dr. Amy Chen through some other people that I know at UA Libraries, and she asked me if I would be interested in curating a special collections exhibition. Although I was already interested in exploring the special collections libraries here at Alabama, it had not occurred to me that I might be able to do this. It seemed like an exciting opportunity, as well as an excuse to spend some enjoyable time in the rare book room. I met with Dr. Chen formally to learn about what was involved in this sort of project and she showed me the exhibit space and provided me with documents detailing the various aspects of exhibition planning, as well as a standardized spreadsheet that I could use to record the necessary information about the items that would appear in the exhibit.
I started by doing a series of catalog searches to get a sense of the W. S. Hoole holdings, using broad search terms like “grammar” and “writing.” Of course, this procedure generated very long lists of search results, but I firmly believe that in special collections work it is always better to generate the long list and take the time to work through it: you never know if number 256 in the list is going to turn out to be something fascinating. Additionally, it does not actually take too long to pare down these long lists of search results into a manageable number of items. In doing this initial search and subsequent winnowing, I determined that the Hoole Library does in fact have a varied and interesting collection of rare book materials in the area of grammar and writing instruction, although this collection fell outside of the time period and geographical range that I usually study.
The next step was to visit the Hoole reading room and call up all my chosen items at once to have a look at them. Once I had my items I looked at each of them individually. Inevitably some of these items turned out not to be relevant at all: I somehow ended up with a nineteenth century anatomy textbook, mixed in with the other items. It included a very interesting chapter on the insalubrious effects of wearing corsets, but this item nevertheless did not seem to me to fit into any exhibition that I had the expertise to curate.
I learned that curating an exhibition involves something of a balancing act: on the one hand, I had an idea of my research interests and what I wanted the exhibit to be about; on the other hand, my exhibit needed to represent the actual range and strengths of the Hoole collection. Despite having a specific research interest, there is a considerable extent to which I needed to the materials themselves dictate the form and content of the final product. An initial conception of what an exhibition might be like must not become a Procrustean bed. As it happens, my search turned up plenty of items that I never expected to find. This is one reason why generating that initial long list, although it takes a bit more time and involves a bit more work, is absolutely worth the trouble. Once I had had a good look at each item I had called up, I was able to pare down this list pretty efficiently to a manageable number. I did my best to organize my texts in such a way that they followed a more-or-less chronological progression, while still being clustered together in thematic sections, and tried to ensure simultaneously that those sections corresponded with the physical display cases that I had to work with.
Once I had my books selected and my exhibit sections defined, I had to draft the text for the exhibit. This meant writing short explanations of each section of the exhibit as well as writing a longer Curatorial Essay to explain its overall aims. This kind of public scholarship was a new genre for me, and I knew it would be important to strike the right balance between intellectual rigor and popular appeal. I ran the text past some of my colleagues in the English Department, as well as some friends of mine outside of academia and made some minor modifications to the text on the basis of the feedback I received, and the resulting draft got Amy Chen’s approval.
Finally, I needed a poster. I consulted with Muzel Chen of the Alabama Digital Humanities Center, who helped me to design it. Since I was already borrowing the title of Nesbitt’s book for my exhibit, I decided to use the cover of Nesbitt’s book as the basis for the poster, which Amy Chen arranged to have printed through the Cartography Lab here on campys. She also handled the printing of the exhibit text through the Cart Lab and the mounting of the exhibition in the display cases, and I must say that she did a terrific job of making the exhibit attractive and elegant, and of doing a bit of rearranging of materials to make them better fit the physical space of the cases.
What advice would you give to other faculty members interested in the opportunity of creating their own exhibition with material from the Division of Special Collections?
- When you are making your initial searches of the library catalog, do not be afraid to generate long lists of search results. Although these take longer to sort through, it is worth it to make sure that you do not miss great materials that you might want to use,
- Be willing to modify your initial idea of the exhibit, depending on the materials that you find.
- Start thinking about the poster early, so that you are not designing and printing it at the last minute.
Do you have any future plans for the intellectual work you put into curating Grammar-Land?
After working on the physical exhibit, I met with Dr. Emma Wilson and Muzel Chen of the Alabama Digital Humanities Center, who helped me to create a digital version of the exhibition. This website is intended to be a way to help the project to reach a broader audience, and to preserve it in perpetuity, after the physical exhibit is taken down at the end of November.
Although I do not have immediate plans to pursue a major research project in American grammatical education, I may want to expand the website, adding more interactive sections based on the lessons and exercises in the textbooks from the W. S. Hoole collection. Doing so will, of course, necessitate some return visits to the reading room to work with the primary materials again.
Thank you for speaking with us! We’ve enjoyed your show and we appreciate your willingness to serve as a role model for future faculty and special collections collaborations in the future.