The Preservation of Illustrative Manuscripts

In September, I traveled to Ireland and one of the most incredible places I went was Trinity College Library to see the Book of Kells. I have always been fascinated with old manuscripts and the preservation process that goes in to making sure they can be on display for the public to see. Because of this interest, I volunteered in 2016 to be a docent when Shakespeare’s First Folio came to my undergraduate university and I learned a lot about the process of how to keep these ancient texts in good condition so they can be admired for many years to come. So when I got to witness the Book of Kells in Ireland, which is much older than Shakespeare’s First Folio, it was shocking that it was in such amazing condition and still available for the public to witness.

The article “Preservation Takes Rare Manuscripts from the Public” by Paul Lewis bought up a topic of creating exact copies of many illustrative manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. It was said that these copies would be a way of keeping the original manuscript from becoming damaged over time, since with every use these manuscripts become more damaged. Many scholars shared their opinions on the idea of making copies of the manuscripts.

Dr. Bernard Meehan, who was the curator of manuscripts at Trinity College Library said, “we feel a strong duty to let it [the original copy of the Book of Kells] be seen.” It seems that Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield from the Bodlean Library has the same opinion about keeping these original manuscripts out for the public to witness when he says, ”to understand what a medieval illuminated manuscript really is, you must turn the pages yourself and see the light flashing off the colors and the gold.” With that in mind, both Meehan and Barker-Benfield realize that the general public cannot touch and hold these valuable manuscripts because the oils on our skin deteriorates these special pieces of history. However, it is mentioned that under proper care, such as a temperature regulated room, dim lighting, and storing these manuscripts in glass casing so they cannot be touched, there is no reason that the original manuscripts cannot be viewed by the public.

What I found most interesting about this article was when it was written (1987) and how the author seemed sure that the only way to give the audience a hands-on experience with a manuscript is to make a copy of it instead of allowing the original to be viewed. However, when I went to the Book of Kells in September and even volunteered as a docent in late 2016, these two historical texts were most certainly the originals. While witnessing these two manuscripts there was a lot of emphasis on what needed to happen to make sure they were not damaged. At the Book of Kells, when I walked into the room that had the original manuscript on display, it was noticeably cooler and much darker than the rest of the exhibit was. While I was a docent, one of my duties was to make sure the temperature in the room and in the case where the folio was stored was at the right temperature; also, to make sure the room had the proper lighting so the folio was not damaged. But in both of these scenarios, there were digital copies available which offered a more hands-on experience for those who came to witness these manuscripts.

Therefore, even though making copies of these manuscripts may be a good idea, especially if the library or museum wants the public to have a hands-on experience with the piece, it seems like the idea of presenting a copy is not one that many scholars like the idea of. More people seem to agree that the emphasis shouldn’t be on making physical copies of the manuscripts but should be put on the preservation and presentation of the original manuscript. From my experience with ancient texts, it seems like digital copies are always a good way to ensure a more hands-on experience that does not involve damaging these texts.

Hannah Bauer

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by Hugh McLeod

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