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  • Writer's pictureLucy Vinten

The evolution of exhibitions at the Jesuit Archive


The British Jesuit Archive has been putting on physical exhibitions for over ten years, and the way we do it has changed significantly in that time. More recently we have started having online exhibitions too, and you can visit those here, but in this blogpost we are considering the physical, in-person exhibitions. Archive exhibitions are tricky things to get right.  The archive material is fascinating and can tell the long and sometimes fraught history of the Jesuits in Britain, but much of it is hard to display in an appealing and informative way. We have tried to enhance the visual appeal of our exhibitions and to increase their intellectual coherence. After each exhibition we make a record of it and discuss among ourselves what worked and what could be done differently next time.  In this blog we reflect on some of these changes.

Some of the 'Party Pieces'. Use the arrows to scroll through the images.

Our early exhibitions tended to concentrate on what were considered the ‘highlights’ of the collection, the items referred to as the ‘Party Pieces’.  These are an eclectic mix of items, including a letter from Napoleon Bonaparte, some letters from President and First Lady Kennedy, a top hat which had been presented to Fr Frederick Coppleston as part of an honorary degree ceremony, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ final vows, photographs of young Jesuits on holiday fishing, sailing and cycling. We would put these items out on the tables in our Reading Room, together with some items we had come across while cataloguing in the preceding few months, and open up to our colleagues.  The items are all interesting, and visitors seemed to like it.  All the Party Pieces had a ‘wow’ factor, a connection with a big name or were themselves fascinating.  However, this approach had some drawbacks – all the exhibitions tended to be a bit similar, and they lacked intellectual coherence. We still wanted to display these items, but needed to think about the context we gave them.

We started to tie our exhibitions in with the Explore Your Archive campaign run by the Archive and Records Association (ARA).  In November each year the ARA promotes an archives week, which often has a theme or a variety of themes.  We would hold our annual exhibition day in or around that week and would tie at least part of the exhibition in with the theme.  This was a useful prompt for us and led us to further develop thematic approaches. 

Explore your Archive poster

For more recent general exhibitions we have tended to have three or four themes, such as Jesuit Education, Formation, Theatre or Spirituality.  Sometimes we will focus more on institutions – Farm Street Church, Loyola Hall at Rainhill or Beaumont College, especially if there is a significant anniversary to link to.  We also look at current affairs and see how our collections reflect these.  After the death of Queen Elizabeth II our next exhibition showcased photographs of visits of royalty to Jesuit institutions, with photographs of the Queen planting a tree at Beaumont in 1961, and other pictures and writings about royalty including Queen Victoria showing favour to Beaumont College, through to Prince Charles visiting the icons displayed at Farm Street. 

Some recent special events stand out.  2023 was a year of celebration for the Province, marking 400 years since its foundation in 1623.  One of the major events was on 21 January 2023, which was the exact anniversary of the foundation, with a special Mass celebrated at Farm Street Church. Immediately after the Mass most of the congregation came to the Archives for a display we had put on to mark the anniversary. We had chosen themes which represented some of the activities of the Province since 1623.  The themes included Leaders, Jesuit Writers and Artists, Jesuit Education, Jesuit Daily Life, Jesuit Formation, The Farm Street Church.  This was our highest-profile exhibition to date and attracted the most visitors.

Alongside these exhibitions with multiple themes, we have organised more focussed ones too.  These are often for specific organisations or interest groups, such as visiting Jesuits from overseas, Jesuits in Formation (i.e. trainee Jesuits), the English Catholic History Association, or (forthcoming) the Hopkins Society, or to celebrate a specific event, such as 175 years since the foundation of St Beuno’s.  For these, the focus is narrower, but we go into more depth about the single institution or theme that is the subject.  This type of exhibition can be fun to devise, though occasionally challenging as sometimes we don’t have the type of material our visitors may be expecting.  But we can only exhibit what we have! 

We are developing this approach further.  This year we have some exhibitions scheduled – one on Gerard Manley Hopkins for members of the Hopkins Society in April, which will be the first time we have put on an exhibition based around a single person.  We also have a series of two day exhibitions – in May, July and October – planned in conjunction with Farm Street Church to celebrate 175 years since the opening of the church in July 1849.  Planning is in the early stages for these and we are excited about the new opportunities they provide to take a deeper dive with a narrower focus into our collections.


We do not have a permanent exhibition space, and use our Reading Room to mount our exhibitions.  We have two small free standing and lockable display cases, and we use these to show delicate items that need protecting, or sometimes thematically separate items, but the majority of the material is exhibited on our Reading Room tables, rearranged into a rectangle.  While our exhibitions are open, we cannot welcome visitors and researchers to the archive, so the exhibitions are necessarily short affairs, usually lasting just one or two days.  Yet the exhibitions take a lot of planning, and a lot of time to set up. We realised we needed to become more efficient at putting on exhibitions.

A related issue is how to ensure our displays are visually appealing. Even the most fascinating archives can look monotonous as a display - having a number of different formats is essential.     Bound volumes and books add variety, and including photographs, paintings and other formats helps too.  Like many archives, we have items in our care which are not strictly archival but due to accidents of history have become part of our collection.  For us, these include hats, relics, stamps, statues, monstrances and some large bellarmine jars.  We try to make sure that our display, while focussing mainly on archive material, includes some of these too, adding visual variety.

One of our exhibitions from 2016, with archive material flat on the table, and unprotected.

Some of the archive items lend themselves to display.  We have many bound volumes of eighteenth and nineteenth century documents and letters.  These need to be supported if they are displayed open, and we have cushions which support them well.  This looks good for an exhibition if the cushion is the right size for the volume.  We have many small antiquarian books from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and these tend to look a bit lost if they are displayed on a large cushion.  We experimented with putting several books on one large cushion, but this didn’t work as it was hard to shape the cushion into providing enough support for each book.  We realised that we needed individual stands for these books.  These had to be sturdy enough to hold the book safely and open enough to see but not so wide as to damage the binding of the book.  We also wanted the stands to be reusable, yet easy to store when not in use.  At this point we realised that the easiest thing to do was to design and make our own.

We already make enclosures for vulnerable books and archives, using archival card of varying thickness, and have a new workshop with a rising workbench and all the equipment such as cutting boards and knives.  After a little bit of trial and error, we came up with a stand that seemed to work.  It consists of two end boards, with a deep V shape cut into them, and three cross struts that hold these together.  The whole thing can be dismantled and stored flat in an envelope and reassembled next time we need it. The book itself sits on a folded sheet of archive card, cut to fit the dimensions of the individual book and this is placed on the stand.  Only the folded sheet is exactly bespoke to an individual book, the stands themselves can support many different sizes of book.  We have made just two different sizes of stand, large and small, which can between them accommodate all but the very largest volumes.

DIY Bookstands

The main drawback to the stands is that they are only good for relatively lightweight books.  We tried using them for a couple of heavy volumes but the stands started to buckle, so we continue to display these on cushions.  We are going to experiment with making sturdier stands using stronger card, or perhaps by laminating layers of archival card together, using archival quality glue.  Hopefully these will be able to support heavier books.

The new book stands solved the problem of how to display most of the antiquarian books. We then started to think about the flat archive items.  These needed protection, and also a visual lift.  The solution we found for this was to display them on archive board with a sheet of melinex (archival polyester) over the top.  The board was cut to be a little bigger than the archive item and a flap of melinex was made a little longer than the board.  We stuck the melinex on to the back of the archive board and made a sharp fold with a bone folder to bring it over the front.  Because melinex is static, it stuck down well to the board.  We then had the archive item in a protective envelope, which was rigid enough to be raised up from the desk.  We raised them up by using journals and books – just a little, but it made a big difference.  The archive display became more three dimensional, and also safer.

The importance of covering as much of our exhibited archives as possible in melinex or other protective material was highlighted recently.  In April 2023 our new reading room was visited and blessed by the Father Superior of the Jesuits, who was visiting from Rome as part of the celebrations of 400 years of the English Province. We put on a lovely exhibition of archive material, showcasing some of the activities of English and British Jesuits since 1623.  A few minutes before the Jesuit Father Superior, Fr Arturo Sosa SJ, was due to appear we were told he was enthusiastic in the use of holy water, so we hastily unrolled large amounts of melinex and covered up the whole exhibition before he arrived.  He held a short service of blessing, after which he liberally sprinkled holy water around the Reading Room.  The three archivists present said their own prayers of gratitude for the protective powers of melinex!

Melinex protects archives from Holy Water

As well as providing shelter from holy water, melinex does help to provide security from people who are keen to touch our items.  There is a tension inherent in a private archive run by professional archivists, since the Jesuits own the archive, and it is in effect their family papers.  When older Jesuits come to our exhibitions and see, for example, photographs of people they knew in their youth, or even of themselves, their reaction is often to pick up the photographs and talk about them.  Archives as memory prompts can be a very important reason for displays, but we also want to protect the archive material itself.  Placing all the photographs in melinex wallets helps with this.  Using melinex strips to hold volumes open deters people from the understandable reflex to turn the pages.  We also put notices on the tables saying ‘please do not touch’, but we are ambivalent about how effective these are, and we are trying to avoid negative language, and we are unsure if we will continue to use these notices.

Other aspects of security have to be taken seriously as well.  Our early exhibitions were strictly internal, open to Jesuits and lay staff of the Society.  Recent exhibitions have been open to more varied visitors, including this year for the first time some open to the general public so we have to be more careful about security.  Depending on how many visitors we expect we have either two or three archivists present at all times, so if one of us is talking about the collections and answering questions, another is available to keep an eye on the collections.  We try to keep a log of how many people come to visit but this has occasionally proved difficult when they arrive in a crowd.

Display cases

For the future, we have some exciting plans.  One of these is having display cases in the London Jesuit Centre (LJC). We have on occasion moved our free standing display cases into the Arrupe Hall at the LJC, usually for one-off events such as the exhibition commemorating 175 years of St Beuno's in 2023. But we are now considering whether to put on permanent displays there, possibly in wall-mounted display cases. The ongoing discussions about these focus on a few areas – firstly, how often to change the displays; the current consensus is either three or four times a year.  Secondly, should we use original archive material or surrogates, and if we use originals, how do we protect them from light, theft, and other sources of harm.  There is a lot to think about, but the benefit of having items on display in a fairly public place along with a little information about the Jesuit archive is that it will draw awareness to our collections, and hopefully result in greater visitors to and users of the archive.

Mounting exhibitions is fun but time consuming. It is a dynamic process, and each one is different, drawing on the lessons we learn from the previous ones. Constantly questioning how and why we put on exhibitions makes us more thoughtful and more efficient at doing them, and we are sure that both our process and the resulting exhibitions will continue to evolve, and hopefully to improve.

Visitors enjoying our exhibition commemorating 175 years of St Beuno's.




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