Editor’s Note: This is the first of three posts on a new digital exhibit: ‘Translation… openeth the window to let in the light’: The Pre-History and Abiding Impact of the King James Bible. The second and third posts will explore the technical and strategic aspects of the project, which was a pilot for an ongoing digital exhibits program.
Today marks the public launch of the digital version of a traditional (read: physical, or analog) exhibition I curated from May-August 2011. “‘Translation… openeth the window to let in the light’: The Pre-History and Abiding Impact of the King James Bible” celebrated the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the King James Bible in 1611, tracing in broad lines the history of biblical translation and textual packaging from the Middle Ages through the “golden age” of English Bibles in the sixteenth century and on through to the early-twenty first century. Among the many items included in the exhibition were medieval manuscripts, early printed books, fine-press publications, modern Bibles, steel engravings, comic books and strips, and original artwork. From a curatorial standpoint, the diversity of materials on display afforded me a great deal of flexibility and creativity in terms of what types of items I chose to use in order to tell the story of the King James Bible and its centuries-long impact on religious practice, language, literature, art, and culture. This is not to say, however, that this diversity did not come with its own set of frustrations.
First of all, physical exhibitions on a topic such as this—no matter how comprehensive or large—can only tell part of the story. The explanatory narrative a curator composes to guide visitors through the exhibition is necessarily limited to those materials available in one’s own collections, or, occasionally, items secured by loan from other institutions. Secondly, in a book-centered exhibition such as this one, the curator must choose a single opening for each item, leaving unseen countless other potentially interesting pages of text or illustrations. Finally, the constraints of the exhibition gallery’s physical space, including its overall size, the number of available display cases, the amount of usable wall space, its lighting, and its security features—and even its opening hours, inevitably restrict what can be displayed and when and how the selected items can be seen by the public. These restrictions require the curator to make hard choices in determining how to tell the exhibition’s story and how best to anticipate the interests and needs of each potential visitor.
While the difficulties outlined above don’t disappear within the digital environment, they are somewhat mitigated. Additional collection materials can be included to help flesh out details of the exhibition narrative. Individual items or entire sections of the digital exhibition can be linked to external online resources that can provide viewers the opportunity to extend their contextual knowledge of the object being displayed. Curators can provide their audience with the ability to interact with exhibition materials more fully, either by making extended sections of a chosen book available for viewing or by offering visitors the chance to examine materials more closely by zooming in on images to bring into focus features that otherwise would be muddled or unclear. Perhaps most importantly, the digital environment allows each individual viewer to be more flexible in his or her own personal approach to the exhibition. You can still follow the traditional narrative path provided by the curator all the way through the show, but it is also much easier simply to bounce from item to item or section to section and impose your own order, meaning, and context on the larger collection of materials.
Perhaps the most important thing this digital exhibition represents to me is the chance to extend the scope, the reach, and the life of this project. During the four months of its original run, close to 3,000 people visited the Libraries’ physical gallery to examine the items chosen for display. This new, digital version of the exhibition essentially translates the original, analog show and makes it a foundation upon which to build a wider and larger audience. At the same time, it helps bring OSUL’s own unique and rare holdings into sharper focus and allows them to be seen alongside related materials from collections around the world. In the end, it is my hope that this digital exhibition will help spur dialogue between students, scholars, curators, collectors, and anyone interested in the history of the King James Bible and biblical translation. After all, conversation begets contemplation, and together the two can encourage us to engage in our own acts of intellectual, textual, artistic, and cultural translation. I hope you enjoy the exhibition!