This digital exhibition reprises a physical one held in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library between October 2018 and March 2019. Its restaging might pose an irony, given that the show’s concept and title, drawn from a lyric poem, concerns ephemerality. Translating this experience to the web nevertheless offers an opportunity to underscore its very theme.
While viewers might be seduced by many examples, “In the School of Wisdom” is not an exhibition of beautiful bindings. Rather, it presents a suggestive history, one wherein the art of bookbinding cannot be disentangled from a manuscript's fragility. As will become apparent from the entries, nearly every cover shown here is a replacement, not an original. This fact of remaking is fundamental to manuscript history, whether in contexts of production or reception.
An online experience offers both advantages and disadvantages. By encountering these manuscripts through a browser, certain material aspects of the originals are missed. For example, images on a screen will eliminate all distinctions between size: a palm-sized Qur’an or a desk-length portfolio risk appearing like nearly interchangeable surfaces, distinguished only by their painted decoration. Yet scale is an integral aspect of encountering manuscripts as designed, usable objects, rather than isolated subjects of visual, textual, or paleographic scrutiny.
In the original installation, such considerations as object dimensions directly affected the selection of works. One of the earliest bindings in Columbia's Islamic collection—resulting from a late 16th century refurbishment of an oversized Kufic Qur’an (MS X893.7 K845)—could not even be considered for inclusion in the vitrine. Conversely, the ability to ignore practical problems of display, like the number of books that can be fit onto a shelf, has allowed the digital exhibition to reorganize the works under significantly altered headings.
As an intermediary to these works, photography is likewise apparent in material ways. The lab used to capture these images is configured in a manner ideal for digitizing whole books whose primary content is, of course, mostly paper. Yet this soft, diffuse lighting can make many lacquer surfaces appear artificially matte. They thereby lack the brilliant sheen found in person—a reflectivity built up through layers of transparent varnish, flecks of mica, and judicious applications of gold. At the same time, high-resolution images permit minute inspection of these very techniques (down to the order and direction in which lines were painted), illuminating their process of creation.
All told, the following "pages" are neither an exact re-presentation of the exhibition which appeared in the Chang Octagon nor, strictly speaking, its catalog. Instead, the format invites viewers to trace their own connections and discover, hopefully, the importance of a closed book.
Matthew Elliott Gillman -- Ph.D. candidate, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Columbia University