On the Matter of Books and Records

CCW PhD student Anna Gialdini recently organised a workshop entitled On the Matter of Books and Records: Forms, Substance, Forgeries, and Meanings Beyond the Lines, which took place on 23 November at the Victoria & Albert Museum. ‘I am happy to say that it was a success. The result of intense work on the part of three co-organisers (myself alongside Alessandro Silvestri, AR.C.H.I.ves Project, Birkbeck University of London, and Maria Alessandra Chessa, Royal College of Art / Victoria & Albert Museum), it brought together international speakers from diverse theoretical frameworks and professional backgrounds. Over one hundred people registered for the event, many of them students and early career researchers, and gathered in the beautiful Victoria & Albert Museum Lecture Hall to hear about recent research, discuss methodologies, and take part in a trans-disciplinary debate about the materiality of written sources and supports across time.

Danae Bafa (UCL) opened the workshop with a presentation of how papyrus was produced and consumed in ancient times, opening our eyes on the real extent of its use other then as a writing support. Jessica Berenbeim (University of Oxford) followed with an engaging discussion of how the materiality of parchment was perceived by its users in the Middle Ages: they never forgot, she argues, that parchment came from animal skins, and this aspect was in fact effectively used to communicate meaning. To conclude the session on supports, Maria Alessandra Chessa (Royal College of Art / Victoria & Albert Museum) introduced us to early modern perceptions of paper and its role in human society; its distinctive traits gave it a place in some cabinets or curiosities.

After a break, it was time for a new session entirely dedicated to bindings, both in libraries and in archives. For my paper, I collaborated with Alessandro Silvestri (AR.C.H.I.ves Project, Birkbeck University of London), and spent a few days in Sicily earlier this year to analyse archival bindings in the State Archive of Palermo. While not closely related to my PhD topic, this project is particularly important to me, as it shows the transdisciplinarity of the history of bookbinding as a field: in this case, Alessandro and I were able to show how medieval and early modern authorities and archivists interacted with the production of documents (and ultimately, history itself) continuously over time. Carlo Federici’s (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) paper traced a story of the discipline over the last 30 years by drawing a fascinating picture of his own research and career, showing how what was once known as “archaeology of the book” has transformed from purely technical training for conservators into a discipline in its own right.

Our final session focused on forgeries. Emily Taylor (British Museum) presented an object from the British Museum she has been able to study both in its physical characteristics and its wider meanings: an intriguing “book” produced to be sold as Coptic on the 19th-century European market, by using both modern and genuine ancient objects. Alfred Hiatt (Queen Mary University of London) talked to us about the material forms that forgeries of documents took as their creators used them for their own purposes, and how the phenomenon influenced 15th century critical methods.

Ian Sansom’s (University of Warwick) final remarks offered a fascinating and inspiring overview of how he (and other writers) engaged with the materiality of paper in carrying out their work.

Each session was followed by a lively discussion with the audience, led by our chairs Nicholas Pickwoad (Ligatus, UAL), Filippo De Vivo (AR.C.H.I.ves Project, Birkbeck University of London) and Ian Sansom (University of Warwick).’ Social media documentation of the day was gathered on Storify.

Anna Gialdini is a UAL Studentship funded student with Ligatus Research Centre. She is researching Greek-style bookbindings in Renaissance Venice.

Top image: Ian Sansom presenting his final remarks (‘The Paper Museum’), photo by Anna Gialdini

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