The UL's Cabinet of Curiosities
There is a wonderful exhibition on at the moment at the Cambridge University Library. It's called "Curious Objects" and you can visit in person or online. I may be biased because I gave a little speech at its opening, but I dont think that the unexpected honour (unexpected, because I have not always been the most easy to please of library users, let's put it that way) has clouded my judgement.
Basically, it is selection of some of the many things that have ended up in the UL that are not books (well there were a few books, but not as stars of the show). To put it another way, it was a chance to look back to a time when the University Library was as much a Cabinet of Curiosities as well as a treasure trove of books, and to reflect how, over the last couple of hundred years, disciplinary and institutional boundaries have hardened. Quite a few of the star objecs that you can now see in the Fitzwilliam Museum (such as the famous Eleusis Caryatid brought to Britain by Edward Daniel Clarke) were originally possessions of the Library.
But that description of the underlying history makes the whole show sound much more austere than it is. The objects themselves are fun, and they've been curated with a sense of humour as well as learning. I think my favourite was the eighteenth-century jigsaw above (or technically, as I learnt, a "dissected table" as it wasnt made with a "jig") which illustrated the main characters of Roman history from Romulus to Augustus. I couldn't quite see if there were any women (and rather suspect not), but even so I think that it has some commercial possibilities among the classical fraternity, young and old.
But in the same "toys and games" case, I also took a fancy to the kids' paper cut-outs, with interchangeable heads etc, of Little Henry, Little Fanny and Little Lauretta, all the rage around 1814.
I'm not quite sure if you'd get away with calling a child's game "Little Fanny" any more.
But I got the feeling that for most people I got the feeling that the stars of the show were neither these nor the pieces of Pompeian wallpainting that had somehow found their way back from Italy to Cambridge, nor some of the rather creepy specimens that had been sent to Charles Darwin, nor even the exquisite little eighteenth-century pocket globe. It was the 'ectoplasm' (above), the stuff that is supposed to seep out of a spirit medium during a seance, here in fabric form. It was apparently taken from the medium Helen Duncan, who has otherwise gone down in history as one of the last people to be prosecuted under the 1735 witchcraft act. She had been in touch with a dead sailor during WWII before the official news had been released of his ship having gone down. And it looks as if the only way the authorities could deal with what looked like a security breach was by resurrecting the witchcraft act.
The ectoplasm came to the UL as part of the collection of the Society for Psychical Research. And 'well I never' is about all one cane say.