Object Lessons

The Centre for Special Collections holds an array of rare materials. Now donations are enabling an exhibition space to display these treasures to the public.

Emma Smith
Emma Smith, Exhibitions Officer at the Centre for Research Collections

Those lucky enough to have visited The World History of Rashid al-Din 1314: A Masterpiece of Islamic Painting, which ran for three months until the end of October, will have been struck by the remarkable quality of the exhibits and the clarity of their display.

Seventeen leaves from this manuscript, with its beautiful colour illustrations and fine Arabic script, were on view in the purpose-built exhibitions space that has been established on the ground floor of the Main Library. Subtle lighting and informative captions enhanced the collection, on display to mark the 700th year of its production in modern day Iran.’

Alongside were objects from the same period and region, such as candlesticks and ceramics, to give historical and artistic context.

Like numerous other items in the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) – not just books and manuscripts but everything from artworks to scientific and musical instruments, many of world significance – Rashid al-Din’s landmark work can usually be consulted on the sixth floor of the same building, by appointment.

It is considered one of the most important surviving medieval manuscripts from East or West – and perhaps the first attempt at a history of the world.

However, as Emma Smith, Exhibitions Officer at the CRC explains, the event brought this unique history into the reach of many more people, both inside and outside the University community. And widening access in this way is one of the centre’s main aims.

It is the most valuable paper-based object that the Collections own. It is stunning and doesn’t often get an outing because of its very high value.

Emma Smith

Situated to the left inside the Main Library entrance at George Square, the Exhibition Gallery opened a few years ago with funds from the Friends of Edinburgh University Library. Today it hosts three exhibitions a year, the blockbuster coinciding with the Fringe Festival.

The next, which runs until 7th March 2015, brings together paintings by Sir William Gillies, former Head of Paintings at ECA, and ceramics by his largely overlooked sister Emma Gillies, a significant and prolific artist in her own right.

In her last year as an undergraduate at the University, Emma Smith, who achieved a First Class MA in Fine Art in 2014, volunteered at the CRC.

That led to an eight-week paid internship. “The role was to put together an exhibition for the Main Library exhibition space for the winter period. Before this, there were only two exhibitions a year and the Exhibition Gallery was closed during winter. We now have three exhibitions a year and only close during installations.”

For me in particular as an art student, it was of huge benefit because you need to spend a lot on materials. So I primarily used that money to help me realise my fine art practice – which was sculpture.

The exhibition that came out of her internship, Collect.Ed, was based on the theme of “cabinets of curiosity”, featuring about 200 rarely seen items from the CRC, including shells, quartz crystals, cranium casts, meteorites and fossilised raindrops.

“As part of the preparation process we discovered some uncatalogued shell specimens that were collected by Charles Darwin,” Emma says.

Her internship was part of the Employ.ed on Campus scheme run by the University’s career service.

“It confirmed to me that I wanted to work with collections in a museum environment but also gave me unprecedented access to the wonderful collections held by the University and the inspiring staff that work with them.

“It prepared me tremendously for my current role. I had no idea it would lead to it – the job became available at an appropriate time for me to apply, so it’s been a real progression and I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have this job, having been such a recent graduate.

“I felt very privileged to be a student at the University and I really enjoyed my time here. When the opportunity came to volunteer and subsequently work at the department, I knew it was a special place and I grabbed it with both hands.”

As the University is obviously the CRC’s first customer, outreach is increasingly important, Emma says. “Beyond that, we also have scholars from all around the world coming to consult our material, so it’s highly significant.”

Donations are vital to the CRC, Emma says, and money raised by the Friends of the Edinburgh University Library still partly funds the exhibitions programme.

“Without that we would be very limited as to what we can do. We would not be as accessible to the public, so it’s fantastic, and we gratefully appreciate the support of the donors.”