I spent this afternoon in the Fitzwilliam museum, looking at their “Cambridge Illuminations” exhibit of medieval books.
The content was very impressive, but (as I’ve grumbled before) the standard museum format is totally the wrong way of looking at anything like this.
If you visit the Fitzwilliam, what you get is a couple of rooms of exbibit cases. To protect the books the lighting is so dim that you can barely see anything. Needless to say touching the books is out of the question, so all you can see is one page from each book. The only explanation is the few sentences on a label, placed so you can only read it by bending down, and giving little more than the essentials of place and date.
All of which reduces visiting the exhibition to going “ooh, old pretty things”.
Slightly better is the virtual exhibition, a website with pictures of 65 of the exhibits. There is – I think – slightly more background, and you can look at the manuscripts without having to squint over somebody’s shoulder.
Still, wouldn’t it be better for a museum to put its images up on flickr, publicise them a bit, and let history-geeks of the world annotate and analyse them?
Better still, we could all go and listen to these lectures. It’s an undergraduate course from the University of Sydney, covering “the medieval intellectual tradition”, and the organisers have been generous enough to put recordings of all 24 lectures on the internet. I’ve been listening to them at work, and they’re really really good. The course manages to make the debates of the time interesting on their own terms, not just as precursers to something else, or as old-therefore-good.