Behind the scenes blog
Alison Prince, Web Manager
The last day of the Shelley's Ghost exhibition at the Bodleian was 27 March 2011. Sadly, it has now been taken down but only to make way for the next exciting installment, Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible, which opens on 22 April. It will live on, however, through theShelley's Ghost exhibition website, which will be staying live and continuing to make the objects available in a virtual sense to interested audiences around the world. A version of the exhibition will also be showing at The New York Public Library in 2012.
Throughout the whole process of planning and showing the exhibition, the Communications team worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get the message out about Shelley's Ghost and the fascinating stories and objects it was showcasing. I think we should also thank Danny Boyle for showing his Frankenstein at the opportune moment when his audiences were able to come and see the real thing here!
By way of farewell, I thought it would be nice to share some of our amazing media coverage from the exhibition. Here are few examples of the great things that were written:
LA Times - 25 March 2011
Paul Edmonson's blog post - 21 March 2011
The One Show - 18 February 2011
Times Higher Education - 17 February 2011
BBC Arts blog - 15 February 2011
BBC News - 15 February 2011
Culture 24 -3 December 2010
Mail Online - 30 November 2010
On 25 March 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg were publicly expelled from University College, Oxford. On the following morning, after breakfast, they took their places on the outside of a London-bound coach. After only two terms as a first-year undergraduate, Shelley had been sent down.
Since Shelley's Ghost launched in early December 2010, we've continued to work in the background at adding the few extras that felt would be really valuable to the website.
I'm very pleased to say that we have now launched our comment facility, so visitors to the website can record their thoughts and comments on each of the exhibits (or their experience of the website more generally) on a dedicated comments tab. We are very much hoping that people will be keen to exploit this. Here is an example of one that has been left already.
We have also added an exhibition timeline. Presented as a slideshow, this interactive gives an overview of the chronology of the exhibition and helps to provide valuable context for visitors. The various exhibition themes are linked to the relevant part of the timeline for quick reference. You can see the timeline here.
Enjoy. More later.
On Thursday evening last week (2 December) we had the opening event for the Shelley's Ghost exhibition. As usual the invitations created by Bodleian Library Publishing were gorgeous and, apart from a few unfortunate people caught in the snow down south, everyone arrived at 17:30 to a beautifully lit Divinity School.
It was great to see so many people there who had contributed to the exhibition in so many ways and it felt like a good culmination to the whole project. Bodley's Librarian, Sarah Thomas, spoke first, followed by the University Vice-chancellor, Prof. Andrew Hamilton. We were then treated to a short speech from Andrew Motion who recalled his own time at University College, Oxford (Shelley's college) in the room next to the Shelley Memorial. He had some amusing tales of complete strangers / Shelley 'enthusiasts' knocking on his door and inviting themselves in on the assumption that it must have been the room Shelley occupied!
After the talks, the exhibition room itself was opened and all the guests got to go in for a sneak preview before the public opening the following day. I spent quite a lot of time staring at the computers in the corner of the room to make sure people weren't having any trouble using the sites but did manage to tear my eyes away and spend some time looking at the exhibits too. Being surrounded by a combination literary masterpieces and very human (often incredibly moving) objects was a very special experience. It was such a treat to see everything come together on the night in this way too. Here's to the success of Shelley's Ghost!
Although the Shelley's Ghost exhibition website was primarily targeted at interested adults, we recognised early on that the material we were showing had some links to the National Curriculum and could also work for a range of curriculum enrichment activities. We started to think about how we could demonstrate the possible uses of the website in the classroom and, in this way, extend access to the materials and the outreach impact of this project even further.
We met with a few colleagues from different departments around the University in order to assess our options. Given the tight timescale we were working to and the fact that the website was primarily aimed at an older audience, we decided that the best course of action would be to create "suggested activity" sheets for teachers to demonstrate how the material might be introduced to their students, and also show the syllabus links.
We were very lucky to make contact with Cressida Ryan, the Classics Outreach Officer for the University of Oxford. Cressida had valuable experience of working with young people and an understanding of how to demonstrate the value and relevance of an idea or activity to schools. If that wasn't enough, she also had a whole heap of knowledge on the themes and the people showcased in our exhibition.
In what seemed like an impossibly short time, we had a pack of sheets put together based on individual objects in the exhibition or more general themes. My personal favourites include "It's all Greek to Shelley!", "A Vindication of the Vindication" and "Editing Frankenstein". I'm actually tempted to have a go myself...
The Shelley's Ghost exhibition is accompanied by a full range of merchandise, including - you guessed it - chocolate. Shelley liked a bit of dessert as much as the next person, and he wrote to Maria Gisborne in 1820:
'...We'll have tea and toast;
Custards for supper, and an endless host
Of syllabubs and jellies and mice-pies,
And other such ladylike luxuries.'
The Shelley chocolate bars are produced by Farrah's of Harrogate for the Bodleian exhibition.
Chocolate isn't the only choice, however; we are also offering 'Liberty and Free Election' and Frankenstein merchandise, ranging from cufflinks to bags. All items are available through the Bodleian Shop.
If you're interested in learning more about Shelley and the exhibition itself, the book Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family is available for purchase on the exhibition website. Written by Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger, the book explores the lives and reputations of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley, and Mary's parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley, haunted by the past, directly sought to enhance the public's appreciation of her husband and parents by the selective publication of relevant manuscripts; she passed along her legacy to her son and his wife. As guardian of the archive until giving part of it to the Bodleian in 1893-4, Lady Shelley too helped shape the posthumous reputations of these important writers.
The book uses the Bodleian's collections - from manuscripts to cherished objects - to illustrate the Shelley family history. In a final chapter, Elizabeth C. Denlinger of the New York Public Library looks at the material that the family was unable to control.
One of the most exciting exhibits is the portrait identified as Mary Shelley, never before seen in public and now the latest addition to the Bodleian's Shelley collections. Some months ago its owner, Mr. Patrick Bedford, kindly agreed to lend the portrait for display; then, just a few weeks before the exhibition's start, he generously converted the loan into an outright gift to the Bodleian.
I first saw the portrait about ten years ago, when Patrick's wife Katy brought it to Oxford for comparison with the Bodleian's miniature of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton. The larger portrait, painted in the 1840s, shows a woman in middle age. The later Easton miniature, painted after Mary's death for Sir Percy and Lady Shelley, idealizes her as she might have been in her younger days. Katy and I agreed that there were strong points of similarity between the two younger portraits (and with the one in the National Portrait Gallery), especially in the sitter's hair-style and in the shape of her mouth.
On Wednesday, 10 November 2010, Dana Josephson and Alistair Orr of the Library's exhibitions staff visited Patrick and Katy at their home to collect the portrait. They took the opportunity to photograph Patrick and Katy with the picture (below), just taken down from the wall where it had been hanging for many years. In an informal interview, Partick recalled that he had 'bought it in a tea-chest full of second-hand books' at a London sale around 1955-6. The sale had been organized for Harrods by one of the smaller London auction-houses, Debenham Storr [later Debenham Coe, finally taken over by Christie's South Kensington]. The sale contained 'nothing but a lot of rubbish except for this one lot'; so Patrick bought the tea-chest, because he 'quite liked Shelley, and used to buy books and poetry'. It was only later on that he 'pulled out the portrait' from the chest ... it had 'nothing to remind you of anything, except that it had on the back that it was of Mary Shelley - rather good, I suppose!'
Katy explained that many of the goods being sold in this way around that time had come from the Harrods Depository, the huge warehouse near Hammersmith Bridge; during the 2nd World War, many people had used the Depository to store their possessions, which were being sold off from there in the 1950s. Patrick felt that there was some advantage for the portrait in having been left forgotten: apart from some slight damage, it is in bright and original condition, completely untouched and unrestored - 'Lucky it was thrown in that tea-chest, because it didn't get messed around with!' When Patrick found it in the tea-chest, it was unframed, so an appropriate frame was found for it later.
In due course Patrick visited the National Portrait Gallery to study Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley there, just as Katy later came to the Bodleian to see the Easton portrait. They are delighted that, alongside the Easton miniature, the gift of the portrait to join the Bodleian's Shelley collections will allow middle-aged Mary to be exhibited and studied 'next door to her younger self. They belong together, don't they?'
We decided early on in the Shelley's Ghost website project that we could help to bring to life the stories and voices contained within the exhibition's manuscripts and letters if we recorded them being read and performed in a series of podcasts.
We started by working with the exhibiton curator, Stephen Hebron, to create a shortlist of exhibits that we felt would most benefit from being heard as well as seen. These included well-known poems by Shelley, extracts of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and personal family letters, including Harriet Shelley's suicide note. We were also keen to try and use budding actors and actresses from the University of Oxford student body so we contacted the University's Drama Officer who helped us to recruit seven willing volunteers.
We managed to do most of the recording in a day. The day itself was intense and punctuated with frequent and inevitable interruptions from noisy pipes, slamming doors and passing tourists chatting happily. We even had to banish a clock to the hallway for ticking too loudly.
The day was also extremely enjoyable. The enthusiasm of the student actors was quite inspiring and it was fascinating to see the variety of approaches and interpretations they brought to the pieces.
When we finished the recording, we asked the students how they had felt about the whole process. Perhaps my favourite summary of the day came from Annabel James (St. Hilda's College) who said: "It was great to take part in the Bodleian's Shelley exhibition because I learned so much about how an exhibition like this is put together, and I was able to work with letters and other documents that they don't show you in an A-level Frankenstein class!"
The changeover period between exhibitions starts mundanely enough with maintenance visits by contractors to check the environmental monitoring equipment, air handling units, and alarm systems. The last thing you want is a malfunction after opening. Lifting the floor and descending into the 'pit' is an interesting reminder of what lies below and behind the carefully placed items seen by visitors to the exhibition.
For Shelley's Ghost we want the visitors to the exhibition to be able to try out the exhibition website on their visit, but we first must lay ten metres of new cabling and move a data point. By mid-morning the contractors have left and we can re-lay the carpets, clear the room and start moving in the exhibits. This is always an exciting moment. First item out of the truck is Shelley's guitar, securely if improbably housed in the kind of black and silver flight-case Oxford's other famous poets, Radiohead, would use for their electric guitars.
Pages and pages of prose were first condensed into an accompanying book that eventually totalled around 35,000 words. A further 25,000 words then went into writing the introductory text and object descriptions for the Shelley's Ghost website. Finally, 10,000 more words were needed for the exhibition labels that will be displayed in the exhibition room at the Bodleian.
So 35,000 + 25,000 + 10,000 = 70,000 words to date and counting...
Curating an exhibition is, like writing, a proces of looking things over and leaving things out. There are many 100s of items in the Shelley collections at the Bodleian alone, from notebooks, journals and letters to portraits and personal relics; Shelley's Ghost contains just 117 exhibits in total and includes 12 on loan from The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library. Often what seems particularly fine early on gets rejected later on as the seemingly endless lists of possible exhibits gets steadily whittled down. You have to be ruthless. Does the object help with the story that the exhibition is telling? Is it interesting to look at? More prosaically, but just as importantly, will it fit? But, going back to the writing analogy, if rejected words get struck out, rejected exhibits are not, of course, disposed of - they remain on the shelves, ready to be consulted by researchers and, maybe, displayed in future exhibitions.
After fifteen years of producing literary exhibitions (on, among others, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson and Dante) I was delighted to be asked by the Bodleian to curate Shelley's Ghost. I remembered the great exhibition at the Bodleian, Shelley's Guitar, from 1992 (the bicentenary of the poet's birth) but after the Library's purchase of the Abinger papers in 2004 I could see an opportunity for an exhibition on the whole family: not just Shelley himself but Mary Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and two less well-known but fascinating figures, Sir Percy and Jane, Lady Shelley. As well as the wonderful manuscripts, books and relics in the Bodleian, there was a chance to exhibit things that had never been seen before: the new portrait identified as Mary Shelley, and her travelling dressing-case. And the chance to work with The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at New York Public Library as well made the whole thing more attractive.
The exhibition brings together manuscripts, letters and personal relics associated with one of our greatest literary families: Percy Bysshe Shelley; his wife, Mary Shelley; and her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Exhibits include Shelley's notebooks, Mary Shelley's hand written draft of Frankenstein, the suicide letter of Shelley's first wife, a necklace made of Mary Wollstonecraft's hair and Godwin's Political Justice.
An exhibition is all about celebrating and sharing treasures, literary treasures in this case, and telling their stories. What you often don't hear is the story of how an exhibition is conceived and created, and the stories of the people that make it happen.
This blog tells those stories and aims to provide a snapshot of life behind the scenes of a major exhibition.