Behind-the-Scenes of the Deathless Fragments Exhibition

Panels showing medieval manuscript and text that reads "Deathless Fragments" along side a display case showcasing fragmented manuscripts

Ohio State’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Library houses an impressive collection of Medieval manuscripts – delicate, handcrafted pages made of timeworn parchment and handmade paper, painstakingly lettered and illustrated. These ancient treasures were crafted as far back as the 11th century, and are now meticulously stored in secure, climate-controlled vaults. Yet, University Libraries’ mission is to share its extraordinary collections with students, researchers and the public. The trick is how to do that while also keeping the priceless materials safe and secure, intact and undamaged. 

Such was the challenge when University Libraries set out to mount an exhibition of its rare Medieval manuscripts in the Thompson Library Gallery. The exhibition, titled Deathless Fragments, showcased about 140 examples of unique Medieval European manuscripts -- from illuminated Bibles to scientific treatises – including many that are represented in fragmentary form. Most of these fragments are the product of the deliberate breaking of manuscripts for commercial profit between the 1930s and early 2000s.  

Eric Johnson, curator of the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, is recognized as curator for the show, but he quickly admits that’s a misnomer. “My name may be on the placard when you walk into the gallery, but that’s incorrect. I did not curate this exhibition on my own. It took careful consideration, collaboration and expertise of many areas within University Libraries,” he says. Johnson compares their involvement to the film credits that roll at the end of a movie, which recognize all the individuals who had a hand in making the end product a reality.   

Johnson points specifically to the efforts of Libraries’ conservation and exhibitions teams, led by Marcela Estevez and Jeremy Stone. “Not only were their teams’ roles critical in a functional way, but also for their incredible artistry, vision and innovation.” 

Stone explains, “It’s not just a matter of choosing pretty things and putting them up on the gallery walls. There is so much work and collaboration that goes on behind the scenes.” 

Stone first worked with Johnson to determine how to tell a story for gallery visitors. “We met and talked about themes for the show and the story we wanted it to tell. It was important to have conversations with Eric to understand the materials and bring that information to visitors. We considered visually interesting pieces as well as those with unique stories of their own that lent to the bigger message of the show.” 

The two started with hundreds of possible items and narrowed it down to what would work best. “I probably had quadruple the number of items that we could show. Jeremy had a very real curatorial contribution, narrowing it down, finding what would work together and figuring out the best layout and arrangement,” Johnson says. 

Next, they turned to Libraries’ conservation team. 

“We went through all of the selected materials and offered recommendations on best approaches to showcase the most fragile materials,” Estevez said. This included not forcing bindings to open beyond their natural opening point, creating adequate supports for loose pages displayed inside the standing cases and devising a method to safely frame parchment fragments. 

“It was not so much about eliminating items from the show, but how to provide the right environment and support structures to preserve them from any potential damage.” 

The biggest challenge was safeguarding the materials. “I had framed items in the past that were maybe 100 years old, but I had never worked with materials that were from Medieval times,” Stone says. “We worked closely with the conservation team for their input on best practices for handling and framing the materials so we would not cause any undue harm.” 

That called for the ingenuity of Ashlyn Oprescu, Libraries’ book and paper conservator, who researched several mounting methods used by cultural heritage institutions.  

“Ashlyn created more than 800 strips of Japanese paper pre-coated with conservation-approved adhesive for the hinges,” Stone added. “She came up with the process and demonstrated how they would work. Then, for three days, Ashlyn, Sarah Casto (photo and paper conservator) and I applied all the paper hinges to the edges of the manuscripts, let them dry and attached them to mounting boards. The whole process is reversible so we can later remove the hinges with no residue or damage to the materials.” 

Many of the manuscript illustrations contain pigments that are sensitive to light. Stone purchased new lights for the gallery, enabling him to lower the overall light levels and eliminate all UV radiation to ensure these delicate pigments would not be damaged. 

With all of the teamwork and careful consideration involved, what’s the end result of Deathless Fragments?  

According to Johnson, “I’m extremely pleased with how it’s all come together. The whole exhibit has been an active classroom for multiple Ohio State courses related to Medieval studies, art and book history. We’ve had K-12 student visits, classes from other colleges, researchers and experts in Medieval manuscripts. The show is getting a lot of good, scholarly buzz.” 

He adds, “I want people to walk away from this with a deeper awareness of the treasures that are at Ohio State, not just for students and researchers here, but also accessible to the public. To do that and make this show happen, it took the holistic powers of the library working together.” 

Library Team Members Behind-the-Scenes 

  • Marcela Estevez, Head of Conservation 
  • Ashlyn Oprescu, Book and Paper Conservator 
  • Sarah Casto, Photograph and Paper Conservator 
  • Jeremy Stone, Exhibitions Coordinator 
  • Ryan Pilewski, Exhibitions Preparator  
  • Colton Rossiter, Exhibitions Preparator