I visited the Sensational Books exhibition at ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library in Oxford on Saturday. Having spent time describing it to friends over the past few days. two senses that stand out in my memory of the exhibition are smell and proprioception. Mind you, that is based on my memory of walking through the space. The Bodleian Library has posted audio descriptions of the exhibition on their SoundCloud channel (with text transcriptions if you are not inclined to listen).
These clarify the curators’ intent. For example, Track 21, which describes the sense of touch in a particular book, begins:
“This Missal contains the texts a priest would need in order to perform the Mass. It’s a large, battered book, and peeking out of its pages are little round knotted nodules, hard, like centimetre-wide pine-cones. These bookmarks are spaced throughout, similar to a modern day book stuffed with post-it notes. There are traces of the original gold colour of the thread still glinting on the hard knots, but mostly they’re black, the gold metal rubbed away by priestly fingers using them to turn the pages whilst performing the Mass.”
Alas, being behind glass, I was unable to touch that singular book, so it faded into my memory. However, there were samples of silk, wood, and other bookbinding materials on display for visitors to stroke.
A piece in the proprioception display case grabbed my imagination—and therefore, my memory. A medieval spell/prayer/incantation that was wrapped around a mannequin resembled a cash register tape, but was a strip of paper that a person would wear to improve their health. [If the facts are wrong, I apologize to the curators. This is my memory speaking.] In the same case hung a small teardrop-shaped leather pouch. I did not read the interpretive card, but guessed that it was meant to attach to one’s belt and bounce on the thigh or hip with each step, reminding one of its contents.
The graphical scent wheel on the wall described a taxonomy of smells. On a shelf below it, a visitor to ST Lee Gallery could lift a bottle containing a synthesized fragrance that would come out in puff when tilted towards one’s nose. I enjoyed a whiff of au de Magna Carta and wished that the JR Tolkien scent machine had been functioning during my visit.
I will revisit the exhibition if I can find a few hours between my son’s birthday celebration in London and his graduation from the University of Sussex in Brighton. It is well worth a visit.