By Robin Anne Reid:
This exhibition will run from June 1-October 28, 2018. The tickets are free although booking ahead is probably a good idea! If possible, I’d encourage booking two times because I wish we had so that I could have visited it once, then gone back to a second more leisurely viewing!
The exhibition will be moved to the Morgan Library, New York, from January 25-May 12, 2019. This exhibition will not be free, and will probably be a smaller version of the Bodleian one. Then in late 2019 (specific dates not yet announced), the Bodleian Libraries and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), Paris will collaborate on the “largest Tolkien exhibition ever to be held in France. The linked article has a good description of the exhibition and the highlights of the 200 plus items featured—half of which have never been on public display before—and other information.
A significant percentage of the items are on loan from the J. R. R. Tolkien Collection at the Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University, Tolkien Archive at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they have an excellent secondary collection of works relating to Tolkien (including fanzines).
When I saw this exhibition first announced a year ago, I was flabbergasted. To say that the Bodleian and Oxford University had never been particularly prone to acknowledge Tolkien the Phenomenally Popular novelist (as opposed to Particularly Prominent Anglo-Saxons!) is an understatement. The PR materials say it is a once in a lifetime exhibit, and, well, yeah, I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime. So we knew we had to go.
Since Dr. Dimitra Fimi has been organizing a track of Tolkien programming at Leeds for some years, we planned to attend the exhibition then go on to Leeds. Our proposals were accepted, and we started planning (including hiring out wonderful cat sitter to come in to take care of the feline Credentials and scheduling the canine Credentials at a lovely boarding place).
Reader, it was incredible!
What follows is a cleaned-up version of notes I scribbled as I went through the exhibit. I spent about two hours there though it felt like no time at all (elven time)! No photography is allowed inside of course, but note-taking was allowed though I think I left nose prints on just about every pane of glass in the exhibit! I was not the only one…
After turning our tickets in, we went into an entrance hall. The lights were low, soft music played in the background (credited to an original composer, David Harper (not quite sure of that last letter because my handwriting got increasingly cramped over time), and images were projected on the walls and floor: a map of Middle-earth on the floor, some of the images that were licensed to be used in this exhibition (on prints, mugs, etc.): Smaug and Bilbo in the mountain, Bilbo on the barrel, the Hobbit book cover map. On the wall at the end of the entrance areas was an image of the Doors of Durin from the walls of Moria.
The exhibit is in one large room with a number of free-standing cases arranged throughout to give the impression of a sort of labrynth (especially given the fairly low light in the room—the lights in free-standing cases and the cases along the walls are quite good). Images were projected on the wall above the cases along the walls.
I did not have the sense of a clearly marked path that one had to follow though I may have missed more subtle cues. I’ve been in some exhibitions where they had a roped off path throughout which was lacking here: that was good in that one could wander but it also meant that there was a lot of eddying around in the room. The exhibit has been up for over a month, but we were there on a Saturday and it was pretty solidly crowded, crowded enough that my housemate lost track of me and could not find me inside and left thinking I was outside.
The information cards on each case/grouping was good, including both background information on the items in the group and bibliographic credit when items were from another collection (like Marquette). The cards included appropriate Tolkien quotes for each topic and, especially in the case of the paintings and drawings, some evaluative commentary. I didn’t see any indication that there was an audio tour available.
I’ve arranged the sections below not in the way I wandered through the exhibit but from a basic chronological sense though given Tolkien’s recursive approach to writing there is no linear chronology of his process, i.e. he began working on the languages before/during World War I (see John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War and was working on and off on his Silmarillion (the huge body of work that came to include The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and from which Christopher ‘edited’ the 1977 Silmarillion) throughout his life, with the earlier material in what look like school notebooks.
The first thing inside the door is a large framed version of Pauline Baynes’ poster map of Bilbo’s journey which includes inset images: I’m glad they included Baynes’ work since her art was on the earliest editions of Tolkien’s work.
The notes follow the jump.