July 5, 2012

What does a 16th-century French Book of Hours have in common with the Latke-Hamantash Debate, founded in 1946?  And what do small cherubic nudes in a 1441 manuscript of Juvenal’s Satirae have in common with an a cappella performance at Wendt House?

For art history Ph.D. candidate Kelli Wood, there are parallels to be found between the drawings of humans, beasts, and angelic beings in medieval marginalia and the extracurricular life of students at University of Chicago—parallels that she elucidates as curator of the exhibition On the Edge: Medieval Margins and the Margins of Academic Life. These surprising connections are on display in the Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery through September 10 and online in an associated web exhibit.

Wood’s inspiration for the exhibition came from two sources. First, while studying for her Ph.D. exams, she read the late University of Chicago art historian Michael Camille’s groundbreaking 1992 study, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art.   “Camille studied the uncommon: the strange, remarkable, and extraordinary images at the edges of the medieval world, bringing light to the confluence of the serious and the playful, the sacred and the profane,” a panel in the exhibition explains. In doing so, Wood says, he recuperated medieval marginalia as an appropriate topic of study for art historians, making sense of what he describes in his preface as the “lascivious apes, autophagic dragons, pot-bellied heads, harp-playing asses, arse-kissing priests and somersaulting jongleurs that protrude at the edges of medieval buildings, sculptures and illuminated manuscripts.”

When Wood later saw a call for proposals from the University’s student-run Uncommon Fund, she says, she “saw a resonance between the contemporary campus life and the margins of medieval manuscripts that Camille is discussing in his book. The University has a reputation for being super-scholarly – for being ‘a place where fun comes to die.’ Yet, if you spend any time on campus, you’ll see that the student traditions are so much fun, and things that go on outside the classroom enrich that center of scholarship.”

For an example of that resonance, first consider a French Book of Hours (Use of Rouen) that features an illuminated drawing of the medieval patroness it was created for kneeling in a crucifixion scene at the page’s center.  Although the patroness is depicted as a participant in the holy scene with the Virgin Mary, this exalted placement is counterbalanced by a drawing of a monkey that is aping her from the margins—“to remind her of her baser nature,” as Wood explains. 

Near this Book of Hours hangs a banner with a 2011 photograph of the celebrated UChicago Latke-Hamantash Debate. Founded in an era when Jewish contributions to the academy were often marginalized, the exhibition text indicates, the Debate was designed to celebrate those contributions even as it mocks serious academic disputes. 

After first conceiving of an exhibition that would make such connections, Wood contacted Alice Schreyer, assistant university librarian for humanities, social sciences, and special collections, and Daniel Meyer, director of the Special Collections Research Center and University archivist, to gain their support for her concept, and then applied for and won an Uncommon Fund grant that would help to support a student-focused opening event and scholarly symposium on medieval art. 

“Wood’s project exemplifies the direct engagement with the collections by students and faculty that Special Collections aims to promote,” Schreyer explains. She adds, “It also showcases the new gallery as a site for experimentation and creativity.” 

Wood then consulted with art history professors Rebecca Zorach and Aden Kumler and worked with a team of students to uncover and describe medieval marginalia in the collection. She was delighted to discover more than 25 examples in the course of the research, far more than the eight to 10 she was originally expecting. “We found that the Library’s collection is rich in this area, which was really exciting because there are now new points of research,” Wood says.  A few of the displayed marginalia were previously known, she explains, but many have never been described in publications before.

After identifying the medieval items she wanted to use in the exhibit, Wood solicited photographs of student life from College students and engaged others in helping her assess them. Finally, she organized the Library’s medieval manuscripts and books together with the contemporary images around common themes, including heraldry, diagrams, vines and architecture, the academy, music, and gargoyles, to name a few.
The Library’s rich collections, the expertise of its staff—including exhibition specialist Joseph Scott—and the availability of the new Special Collections Exhibition Gallery provided Wood with an extraordinary opportunity for intellectual and professional growth. “What was really special for me was to take something that could have been just a reading from an exam list and use it to enrich my curatorial experience, to enrich my teaching experience, and to build a community around the manuscript with my fellow graduate students, advisors, and people attending the symposium from other universities,” Wood said.  “It has helped me to see where my work fits into academia as a whole and to see other people’s contributions and have them enrich my thinking process.”   

Kumler, who reviewed the preliminary selection of manuscripts with Wood, agreed:  “The exhibition demonstrates what a crucial role the SCRC plays in the intellectual life of the University—not simply as a steward of pieces of the past but also as a place where creativity, intellectual discovery and collaboration happens on a daily basis.” 

“I love teaching at the SCRC,” Kumler says, “and I’ve seen what a huge impact the collections and the SCRC’s librarians have on my students, but the exhibition also shows how much students can discover and create on their own in the SCRC, according to their intellectual priorities. Many rare book libraries and archives, even at universities, are not so welcoming: it’s a major testament to the vision that guides the SCRC and its incredible staff.  The exhibition explores aspects of the medieval past and our very local, very eccentric contemporary culture that might easily be dismissed as marginal. It makes a strong statement that no pursuit, pursued passionately, is ever ‘marginal’ and that playfulness and pleasure animate both great universities and history, alike.”

Camille’s legacy lives on

Zorach, who proudly claims Camille as her dissertation adviser, believes that he “would have loved the rhyme that Kelli created between manuscript margins and the margins of academic life.”
Kumler, who studied with Camille as a College student, was delighted to see archival selections from his papers on display as part of the exhibition.  “The incorporation of Michael’s drawings, doodles and manuscript notes make a strong case for how much our engagement with the past shapes our practice in the present.” 

Meanwhile, the play goes on in Special Collections, as viewers of the exhibition are invited to record their own marginalia in a copy of Camille’s Image on the Edge, which sits atop a pedestal in the Gallery until the show closes, when it will be added to the University Archives.  Much like the medieval marginalia on display, these 21st century notations are sometimes sexual or scatological, sometimes bestial, and sometimes philosophical, as they explore the relationship of the note maker to the text at the center.
Perhaps none does so better than a note on the first page alongside Camille’s statement that he is interested in the ways medieval marginalia “seem to celebrate the flux of ‘becoming’ rather than being.”  An exhibition visitor has circled “the flux of ‘becoming’” and connected the phrase to a marginal declaration: “THIS IS UCHICAGO.”