New exhibition explores the meaning of gifts and the stories we tell about them

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New exhibition explores the meaning of gifts and the stories we tell about them
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Library Records b. 903. The Bodleian’s Register of Donors from the early 1600s, which listed the books given to Thomas Bodley’s newly re-founded library at Oxford University, or bought with financial donations. This was one way to publicly thank the library’s patrons and encourage more gifts.

OXFORD.- The Bodleian Libraries presents Gifts and Books, a new exhibition exploring the importance of giving and receiving books. The exhibition asks what this apparently simple act, practised for centuries, reveals about human relationships and beliefs. Opening at the Weston Library on 16 June 2023, the exhibition will display items from the Bodleian’s rich collections, encompassing everything from ancient myth to contemporary stories, illustrating how gift-giving and writing have always been intertwined. Curated by Dr Nicholas Perkins, Associate Professor in Medieval English literature at Oxford University, Gifts and Books investigates the power of gifts and the stories we tell about them.

Visitors can explore people’s motivations for giving books across the ages, including as a religious offering, a mark of friendship, or a way to strengthen political alliances. Of the many intriguing items on display is a stunning book made by a young Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I. She wrote out her translation of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul and included a finely embroidered cover framing the initials of Queen Katherine Parr, to whom she gave the book as a New Year’s gift in 1544. The strategic exchange of books was a common practice to cement relationships in the fickle world of the Tudor Court.

A guitar bought by the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley will also be on display, highlighting gift-giving as an act of friendship. Shelley gave the instrument to his friend Jane Williams shortly before his death. It will be displayed alongside his manuscript of the poem ‘With a Guitar. To Jane’ which reimagines Shelley, Jane and her husband Edward as characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Love tokens are represented further in a First Folio of Shakespeare, open at a scene from As You Like It, where Orlando writes love poems and pins them to trees; and a 1950s program by computer pioneer Christopher Strachey that generates love letters.

The exhibition delves into the relationship between writing, gifts and religion, with pieces highlighting how gift-giving has been used across cultures and faiths. A Buddhist narrative, The Birth Story of the Deer, written on a set of palm-leaf folios, exemplifies the ideal of sacrificing oneself to attain perfection. A beautiful Qur’an manuscript that later belonged to an Indian ruler will also be on display; as will a spectacular medieval Jewish prayer book, and books of Christian devotion that include portraits of the donors who paid for their exquisite craftsmanship.

Books have often been commissioned, adapted and regifted. A beautiful, illuminated page from the Ormesby Psalter will be on display, featuring two different sets of patrons: one from a pair of families whose marriage alliance seems to have faltered; another showing the wealthy churchman Robert Ormesby, after whom the book is now named. Like other medieval precious objects, it was given and re-given at different times due to its value and altered to suit new owners.

The exhibition shows how gifts and books can be bound up in relationships of power, politics and protest. For example, it features the extraordinary Olaudah Equiano, who was treated as property or even ‘given’ as a gift by those who had enslaved him, but who managed to gain his freedom and write his own life story. The power of the gift to encourage creativity is further explored through books for young readers, many of which show the act of giving as both joyful and powerful. Writers including Oscar Wilde, Patience Agbabi, Shirley Hughes, Philip Pullman and Zetta Elliott are all represented here.

Dr Nicholas Perkins, curator of Gifts and Books says, “Giving and receiving books and stories is something we all do to make friends and form communities. Over the centuries, books have not only been precious gifts, but have also spoken to us about giving, receiving and reciprocating. Our exhibition explores and celebrates this power that the gift generates.”

The newest item in the exhibition will be created just days before its opening. On 31st May and 1st June, celebrated book artist Paul Johnson will finish a spectacular pop-up book in the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall, which he will donate to the Bodleian after it is featured in the exhibition. Families and members of the public can talk to Paul about his work and have a go at making their own pop-up book.

An exciting programme of talks and events will support the exhibition, alongside a new theme for the Space for Reading, which will contain around 60 books co-curated by staff and members of the public which further explore the joy and complexity of gifts and books. There is also a public call out to share some of your own stories of books as gifts today, which will feature on a wall in the exhibition space.

Gifts and Books
16 June - 29 October 2023
Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

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