Beyond Words at Houghton Library

Beyond Words at the Houghton Library

P and historiated U with personifications of Ecclesia and Synagoga marking the Canon Leaf from the Noyon Missal Noyon, France, 1225–50 Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Typ 120, f. 4r [Editor’s Note: this image has been cropped for size.]

From now until December 10th, Houghton Library on Harvard’s campus will be hosting one portion of the Beyond Words exhibit, titled “Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.” The other two sections are hosted at the McMullen Museum at Boston College and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In total, the exhibit boasts over 260 manuscripts dating from as far back as the ninth century.

Beyond Words at the Houghton Library

Houghton’s Beyond Words display is free and open to the public. As you enter the main lobby, the Beyond Words exhibit will be tucked off to your left. You could happily walk inside and peruse the multiple glass cases that encircle the room, but you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to chat with the security guard or whatever staff or passerby is ambling through. Everybody is lovely, and even better, they are all bursting with knowledge about the exhibit.

Let them tell you their favorite parts. When they lean towards you as if about to spill a secret, you’ll know you’re witnessing a passion for books and history that is often kept hidden in other professional venues. Within the confines of this library though, the books breed their own energy and it’s contagious. If ever there were a place where magic could exist, it’s here.

Beyond Words at the Houghton Library

Historiated initial G marking the feast of the Assumption Gradual Lippo Vanni and workshop (fl. 1344–75) Siena, Italy, c. 1360 Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Typ 79, f. 237v

The library itself is built with soft angles and thick walls, which makes it the perfect haven for book collections of all sorts. The antiquity of this particular collection though, made me giddy when I first saw it. Houghton’s display centers on monasticism and begins with a case of chained books.

This is the tallest case in the room and by far the most foreboding. The books inside are standing at attention rather than laying flat. It impresses upon you the significance of these books and all of the years they have seen. The very idea of chained books makes me a little queasy, but it also revs up my imagination and calls to mind stone castles, heavy wooden desks, and all the people I’ll never get to meet in modern times. The surrounding bookcases’ subtle reflection on the glass display continuously heightens the idea that magic could live here. You could get lost in the history contained inside this modest room. Let yourself.

As you move throughout the displays, you’ll notice that the oldest manuscripts in the collection are not as colorfully illuminated. You might be inclined to skip over them in favor of the more brightly painted pages. Don’t. A book from the ninth century is not something you see everyday. Let it talk to you for a little while, even if it looks to be a fraying gray bundle. The longer you look, the more respect you’ll have for the manuscripts and the people who created them.

Another point of contention you might find with this collection is the fact that you don’t speak the language that the books are written in. This could deter you from gazing longer than a moment at each page as you march from case to case. Slow down. The language barrier actually allows you to better appreciate what the books are, rather than getting caught up in what they say. You’ll begin to see that detailed images, precise bindings, and intricate lettering truly show how valued these manuscripts were to their creators.

Interaction at the Beyond Words Exhibit

This isn’t only a collection for book lovers, history buffs, or mystery seekers though. It is a fully interactional exhibit—one that even a recalcitrant middle schooler or sleek technological mogul could enjoy. There are multiple electronic tablets throughout the room that allow guests to view everything from how parchment is made to labeled close ups of illuminated pages. There is even one tablet that allows the viewer to flip through scanned pages of the manuscript in front of them, as if actually leafing through a centuries old text. You may never have an opportunity like this again.

You could spend all afternoon studying the creases in every manuscript Houghton has to offer, or you could breeze through the exhibit in less than a half an hour. You might even decide to make a day trip out of your book tour and visit the other two libraries as well. All are viable options. Whatever you decide though, this exhibit is a treasure that must not be missed.

Further information is available at the Beyond Words’ detailed website.

How to Get to Beyond Words at the Houghton Library

Houghton Library
Harvard Yard
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138 USA
617-495-2440

The Houghton Library is found on Harvard University‘s campus and can be accessed using public transportation. Harvard can be found on the Red Line of the MBTA, at the Harvard Square stop. You can also take the 66 bus towards Harvard Square.

[pw_map address=”Houghton Library, Cambridge, MA 02138″]

– Elizabeth Coyle, Content Writer