From the Archives: Reflections on creating the relic exhibition
POST BY RSomerset
Monday, March 29, 2021 - 15:22
On 1 March 2021 the virtual relic exhibition, How bleedeth burning love, launched. This was a very exciting, and by then long anticipated, moment. I’m very pleased with the reception it has had so far. This blog post is a brief reflection on how the exhibition came to be though looking back it seems a blur of frequent meetings and to and froing with outlined texts.
Initially, when an exhibition on relics had first been suggested back in 2019, a physical exhibition was planned, which would have first been on display at Mount Street in London and then at Stonyhurst College. The idea was to have this ready to mark the 50th anniversary of the 40 Martyrs on 25 October and conclude at Stonyhurst shortly after Campion’s feast day on 1 December.
With the arrival of a global pandemic in 2020, it quickly became apparent that this original idea would not be possible and so the suggestion was made to attempt a virtual exhibition. It was not until August however that we started planning for such and by then we realised that the October anniversary would be too tight a deadline, so it was thought wise to work towards a launch for 1 December as Campion’s feast day seemed another fitting celebration to tie in with. Partly having been overambitious with how quickly the exhibition could be assembled, partly due to the evolving nature of the exhibition into much more of an audio experience, and thus needing lots of recording done, and partly due to Covid, it became obvious that the exhibition would not be ready by 1 December, at least not to the standard that we wanted, and so eventually 1 March, the feast of St David, was chosen as our launch date.
Having personally only ever really set up informal exhibitions for inhouse visitors, with the exception of having created a heritage room with exhibition in a previous role, creating an exhibition, and especially a virtual one, was a novelty and kept me busy with researching other examples to look at the possibilities. Of course, initially, although we broadly agreed on what we wanted the exhibition to be like, we all had individual ideas regarding the final look and function, which was not always easy to explain. But from the beginning there was much excitement and passion to create something wonderful and it gradually evolved into us wanting this to be an audio and visual experience.
One of the first tasks was to select which relics we would feature. Luckily, our relic cataloguing project had already captured sufficient information for a selection to be made remotely. After careful packing up the selected relics on one of the few days onsite, these were sent to Stonyhurst, where they would be on loan whilst they were cleaned ready to have high quality photographs made of them for use in the exhibition.
It was a few weeks before we began to involve Peter’s House, our website developer, in discussing the online appearance of the exhibition. Given the initial time frame of just a few weeks we decided to give over creative control to Peter’s House, who captured incredibly well what we wanted, and we are enormously grateful to their design and IT technology skills in producing the final result. They also provided the necessary support and editing to obtain the audio recordings, which had to be done remotely due to the Covid situation.
After the initial planning and discussion about what the exhibition should be like and associated activities that we could plan, there was then a longer period with less for me to do as Dr Jan Graffius, Stonyhurst College Curator, who knew the subject matter extremely well as well as having the relics in her care was solely responsible for the content creation. Deputy Archivist Mary Allen and I proofread various versions before the final text was produced and provided moral support but could do little else at that time. Instead, we focused our efforts on planning how to promote the exhibition through our newly set up Twitter account and through blog posts.
At times given the visual focus of exhibitions on objects, even in this case where a good part of the relics came from the Jesuits in Britain Archives, it has felt like the archives are the ‘poorer neighbour’. Something that I have come to understand by reflecting on this is that without the documentation these objects would themselves be less significant, as the accounts and testimonies of the individuals martyred as well as the documentation about the relics themselves, their provenance and their custodial history, is contained within the archives. So, they must be shown and seen together as has been done in the exhibition.
The next exhibition, that we are currently planning with Stonyhurst College Collections, will again largely focus on objects, and in this case most of the items displayed will be from the Stonyhurst College Collection itself. However, there are some vital documents in the Jesuits in Britain Archives relating to these. I’m learning to see that although at times there might appear to be an imbalance in contribution it all leads to a larger showcasing of the Jesuit history and thus promotes the safeguarding of the heritage material that enables such to be shared.
Towards the end of the exhibition creation, the suggestion was made to have a video introduction. The plan was to have me interviewing Jan on some basic questions that people might have, such as ‘What is a relic?’. Given the ongoing Covid restrictions we decided to try recording a Zoom conversation. This required careful consideration (what to wear, what the background looked like, what mic to get). However, after all the effort the result was a rather poor audio quality video due to the less than powerful internet that I have, and as it was not the imagined dialogue, we decided to change this. We managed to have the video edited so that only Jan giving the answers was shown along with some still images. The original ‘interview’ was felt to be too long and so was edited down to the very basic introduction you now see. It is hoped that Jan will be able to rerecord the other answers for inclusion as additional material in due course. However, we did learn about Zoom recordings and interviewing and this has fed into the interview we are preparing as a podcast, which we will hopefully soon have available.
In line with our newest Development Plan to work more closely with other Jesuit works, it was good to see that along the journey there was a lot of keenness to support this venture, so for example Thinking Faith agreed to arrange a review as well as promote articles related to relics when we launched. I must admit that the review produced was a wonderful delight to read and felt as if Thomas Flowers SJ, who wrote it, had been sitting in on our frequent meetings as he captured our intent so well.
As we had always intended the virtual exhibition to be as accessible as possible, the reason for there being both text as well as audio, Mary and I spent a considerable amount of time adding alt text descriptions to the images so that those using computer readers would also benefit from having the images described to them. It was certainly yet another personal learning curve working out how to describe these images within a limited character count whilst making sure to do as much justice as possible to what was being showcased in the photograph or picture. It is certainly a skill that is worth developing.
What I have found particularly wonderful about this whole experience is the possibilities it has provided for the future. In the first instance we are already discussing the next virtual exhibition with Stonyhurst College Collections, which is intended to be launching this autumn, so watch out for more information about that! We had always thought of this as a first attempt to having more, but the feedback and our experience has been so encouraging that we have agreed we will have a regular programme of such.
There are also other opportunities being explored to collaborate with other institutions and to create other platforms for sharing content online for example through a regular podcast. I was always attracted to becoming an Archivist, not only as I love the privilege of caring for these amazing records, but also because I wanted to find ways to make these accessible to others. The virtual exhibition, How bleedeth burning love, has certainly been a way to showcase some of the relics and associated documents and has been a wonderful personal learning curve.
If you have not already visited then I recommend that you do look at the relic exhibition.
Rebecca Somerset, Archivist