Harry Jelley, poet and Visitor Engagement Assistant at The John Rylands Library, blogs about why he invited First Draft to hold an event inspired by a rarely-seen collection in the historic building…
The collection at The John Rylands Library can be as bizarre as it is vast, and has some unique examples of important oddities. This is certainly the case with The Burney Collection. Held in 11 A4 sized, custom built boxes, this collection includes “Hair of a Fiji islander”, “A Russian peasant’s soup spoon” and “Part of the floral headdress of the Empress Eugenie”. These were all collected by Isabella Banks, the author of Manchester Man, and now find themselves at home amongst the John Rylands collection; a collection normally celebrated as the home of a first edition of The Canterbury Tales, the manuscripts of Elizabeth Gaskell and (ahem) a Gutenburg Bible. Those last objects are so obviously brilliant that we thought it would be fitting to invite First Draft, celebrators of the less obvious but equally exceptional, to explore this collection, create new work and help to expose these truly unique treasures.
Having worked at the library for around six months now, I have only just begun to explore the collection. In the strong rooms, storage spaces, of the collection you often have to walk past incredible objects to find the particular incredible object that you’re looking for — to explore the whole collection would take lifetimes of dedication. This makes sharing the collection with the public a challenge as some visitors come with a specific text they want to see and the only permanent object that we have on display is the St John’s Fragment, the oldest extant fragment of the New Testament.
In a situation like this what seems to make sense to me is to show people objects/texts that they didn’t expect to encounter. When I was first introduced to The Burney Collection it was exactly the sort of thing that I felt people would enjoy discovering. What better way of sharing these great items than creating new work and new performance.
Libraries are spaces where texts are worked with, researched and read. If something is written about these texts, they are often published in journals and academic books — they aren’t explicitly aimed at the public. With First Draft‘s VAULTS event, we will be changing that. Some of the most interesting objects in the library will be explored, inspiring new performance that will be shared with everyone who wants to attend the event on 19th March, 7pm. All those creating these pieces have been given complete freedom to interpret them as they wish. We at the library don’t know what to expect from the work, and from the collections encounter we’ve already held with the performers, it appears they weren’t quite expecting the objects we had on display. It’s logical that what happens on the night will be equally unpredictable…
As a poet, Harry has also performed at several of our past events. Read his poem, Silent Night, performed at our Christmas event