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Victorian women's library re-imagined for today at Compton Verney
Women's Library Room View.

COMPTON VERNEY.- On 28 June 2017, Compton Verney in Warwickshire unlocks the mysteries of a remarkable set of library shelves in a small room of their own. Representing a groundbreaking collaboration between Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park and Oxford University’s Research Centre for the Humanities, Unsilencing the Library is a detective story, an installation, and a celebration of what reading can do.

Compton Verney, the former seat of the Verney family, was virtually a ruin by 1993, before it was restored to glory. One room, however, retained its historic fittings, and a key decorative feature remained intact: a set of imitation books framing the room’s doorway.

Research suggests that this visionary doorway was probably commissioned by Georgiana Verney, wife of the 17th Lord Willoughby de Broke, in around 1860. It is remarkable not just for its survival – but for the story it tells us today. An accidental aristocrat, Georgiana found herself becoming a baroness when her husband, Robert, inherited his uncle’s estate. After Robert died in 1862 she spent her remaining years founding schools, supporting the temperance movement, and promoting literacy in the community. Crucially, Georgiana was just one of a long line of readers at Compton Verney who were interested in the question of women’s rights. Her ‘mock’ books are sending a very real message about equality of mind – for all of the authors on the book spines are women.

Masterminded by Dr Sophie Ratcliffe of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford – with her colleagues Dr Ceri Hunter and Dr Eleanor Lybeck – Unsilencing the Library is a creative reinterpretation of the room known as the ‘Women’s Library’.

Using Georgiana’s feminist statement bookshelf as their inspiration, they have asked a series of individuals and communities to choose books to put on the rooms now-empty shelves. Their task? To ‘unsilence the library’ by highlighting an aspect of our reading life that they feel needs to be heard.

The guest curators – who will change every year – range from actor and UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and cultural critic Margo Jefferson and horticulturalist and TV presenter Alys Fowler to pupils at the local comprehensive school, Kineton High, members of prison reading groups and ReLit: The Bibliotherapy Foundation. The books they choose will be freely available to read in the room and/or buy in the museum shop, and will be accompanied by a wide range of online interpretation.

Compton Verney’s Director, Professor Steven Parissien: says “This is a thrilling development which not only takes Compton Verney in an exciting literary direction but will also bring us new audiences and partnerships. We are delighted to be working closely with Oxford University’s Research Centre in the Humanities: Sophie and her team have not only shaped this innovative and inspirational project but have also helped to find the funds to make it happen. And the initial roster of stellar guest curators they have assembled is simply ideal – and goes to show just how important reading is to everyone, not just to the literary elites.”

Project leader Dr Sophie Ratcliffe says “Researching Georgiana’s Victorian ‘shelfie’ has been fascinating – and is an inspiring model for the exhibition. What’s struck me, working on this project, is how the common thread of reading can draw diverse communities together. The choices are wonderfully various – but they end up showing us how much we have in common. “

Sarah Turvey, Director of Prison Reading Groups, agrees “Books can be a great escape for those in difficult circumstances, but they also connect us: to the world outside, to each other and to ourselves. The project has helped prisoners do just this.”

Curator and writer Margo Jefferson adds “Reading is a right, a privilege and a pleasure that women have had to fight for. The shared bookshelf reminds us that we still must.”

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