Out of context: bringing a manuscript collection to a broader audience

In 2012, a partnership between the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library and Birmingham Museums Trust developed into an exhibition on calligraphy in Arabic script. Of the 33,000 visitors over 12 weeks, an in-gallery survey suggested that around 60% identified as Muslim including around 20% who were first-time visitors to the museum. These figures highlight the success of this project to take manuscript collections out of their usual context and use them to help engage new and diverse audiences.

The exhibition showcased manuscripts from the Mingana collection held in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library. That collection is made up of over 3,000 manuscripts, originating from the Middle East and brought together in Birmingham during the 1920s by the scholar Alphonse Mingana (1878-1937) under the patronage of the philanthropist and businessman Edward Cadbury. The manuscripts date from the 7th century AD to the 19th century and are on all manner of subjects: theology, medicine, history, science, law, literature, astronomy, astrology and include early fragmentary Qur’ans. In 2007 the collection was awarded Designated status in recognition of its outstanding international importance.  The University has owned the collection since 1997 and work to increase access includes publishing a selection of the manuscripts online in the Virtual Manuscript Room and cataloguing the Islamic manuscripts online in the union catalogue ‘Fihrist’, as well as a number of small displays on the University campus. In 2005, 40 manuscripts were lent to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for the exhibition ‘Illuminating Faith’, it had been nearly 10 years since that exhibition when the Cadbury Research Library was approached in 2013 to lend 14 manuscripts to the ‘Qalam’ exhibition. The University was keen to contribute to another major public exhibition that would bring manuscripts out of their academic context and to a broader audience in the region, particularly Muslim communities.

The exhibition ‘Qalam: the art of beautiful writing’ was developed by Birmingham Museums’ first, and at that time newly-appointed, specialist Curator of Islamic & South Asian Arts. From its initial development the exhibition was focused on attracting audiences from the Muslim communities, which include some of the people least likely to visit any museum. The very subject of calligraphy in Arabic script was selected as it has spiritual meaning in Islam to this day. This is because Arabic writing was first developed to preserve the accuracy of God’s revelation to the Prophet Mohammed. In the exhibition this link was emphasised through historic Qur’anic and Hadith texts, which were amongst a range of manuscripts from the Mingana collection displayed in an initial section. Subsequent sections featured objects from Birmingham’s own collection alongside loans from other institutions, most notably the British Museum. Together they formed a display that aimed to tell the story of calligraphy in Arabic script from the 7th century to the present day through a diverse range of forms from historic manuscripts to 3-D objects and contemporary art.

A local, community voice in the exhibition emphasised the universality of calligraphy in Arabic script to many people across the world, including those living in Birmingham. This voice was projected through an outreach project with a local woman’s reading group, who were predominantly of South Asian origin and learning English for the first time. Inspired by the objects and themes in the exhibition, they created their own artwork, including mini books and paper petition boxes, which were incorporated into the display.

The exhibition title, Qalam, was deliberately chosen to spark interest in the wider community. This word means reed pen in languages including Arabic and Urdu and so is widely recognised by many South Asian or Middle Eastern communities. In order to emphasise that association we also commissioned the British calligrapher, Soraya Syed, to design a logo for the exhibition which incorporated that word in Arabic as well as Latin script. In addition to providing help to choose the exhibition title, community consultation and research also imputed into the format of the interpretation for the project. This incorporated translations or summaries of the texts on display and a children’s trail aimed specifically at the significant number of young families amongst Birmingham’s Muslim communities.

Once the exhibition opened, marketing and outreach work was also focused on attracting new and diverse audiences to the exhibition. Muslim-focused media channels, such as Unity FM or the Islam Channel were included in publicity work, alongside more standard networks. However, one of the most important tools in promoting the exhibition was a film produced by internationally-acclaimed Birmingham-based visual artist, Mohammed Ali (AKA Aerosol Arabic) who is well known in the city. The short film he made of manuscripts and objects included in the exhibition, set to a sound-track and poetry, was an important draw and was released on YouTube, as well as being shown in a room adjacent to the exhibition. Finally, during the run of the exhibition itself active work to reach out to Birmingham’s Muslim communities incorporated thirty curator-led tours, as well as talks, calligraphy workshops and even an Arabic script-related dance display.

The feedback and evaluation from the exhibition indicated its unprecedented success to reach out to Muslim communities in Birmingham and beyond. Many visitors were delighted at the range of objects, particularly manuscripts, on display and a large proportion cited the Mingana collection’s early 7th century Qur’an as one of the key draws for their visit. Going forward this exhibition has also cemented a working relationship between Birmingham Museums and University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library that we hope to build on and develop in the coming years.

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