Journeys: Reading the World

This February saw the launch of our new online exhibition Journeys: Reading the World, showcasing material relating to travel and tourism from our rare books, archives and manuscript collections. David Wright, Assistant Curator (Exhibitions), gives us a preview of the exhibition, which we would encourage you to visit for yourself.

There is a certain irony to us launching an exhibition about the pleasure, value and excitement of travel when are all mostly stuck indoors, unable to venture much further than the local supermarket, but so far visitors seem to be finding it a pleasant escape from the mundanity of lockdown.

Getting to this point has been quite a journey in itself. The exhibition was originally planned to open in the gallery space at Palace Green Library in late 2020 (no prizes for guessing why that changed) and adapting the project for a new online format has been an interesting learning curve.

Clearly visiting an exhibition and viewing our collections online is a different experience for our visitors and we lose many opportunities to observe and interact with them, learning what they like (and don’t like) about our exhibitions.

There has undoubtedly been some advantages to creating an online exhibition as well. We are already seeing a big increase in international visitors, with North American visitors particularly well represented and the freedom to display multiple page openings from the same book, encouraging visitors to focus on specific quotes and passages, is a big benefit of the online format.

The main theme of the current exhibition is how travellers have prepared for journeys throughout history, revealing ongoing debates around the reasons people should, and shouldn’t travel. In some ways, the current travel restrictions have given this new relevance, with Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century argument about privileged foreign travellers doing nothing for the greater good of society mirrored in current outrage caused by celebrities and influencers travelling abroad during lockdowns.

The section on dos and don’ts for travellers will also strike a chord with anyone like me who loves to plan ahead before going on holiday. Various guides and travelogues in the collections offer guidance on where to stay, what to eat and, amusingly, what to pack while travelling. These sources give us a good impression of some of the risks associated with historic travel, but also how it’s potential for personal and societal growth and enrichment has been prized throughout the centuries.

Funny packing list
E.V. Lucas, "Have I Left Anything Out?" (c. 1920s). Add.MS.887/1/27

Some of my favourite items in the exhibition are guidebooks for travel through Italy as part of the Grand Tour itinerary popular with upper class young men in the 18th century. My last pre-Covid holiday was a journey through Italy so I enjoyed reading these accounts with a mixture of familiarity and envy. My own experiences of Naples were certainly different to Richard Lassels who describes it as “first for strength and neatness” in all of Italy, though I can definitely relate to Edmund Warcupp’s praise of Roman wine. He notes that the architecture and ancient sites aren’t bad either.

Historic map of Rome
Edmund Warcupp, Italy, in its original glory, ruine and revival. London, 1660. Routh 57.C.16

Spotify users also have the option to explore the exhibition with the accompaniment our specially curated playlist. Suggestions for the playlist are more than welcome so let us know if there is anything we should add!

All exhibitions are a huge team effort and this one wouldn’t have been possible without the expert and ever-expanding knowledge of our Rare Books Librarian Dr Danielle Westerhof and our constantly creative Exhibition Designer Carolyn Gaw. Special mention too for Katie Braithwaite’s work to research and promote the exhibition, Frank Addison for the fantastically photographed books and documents, and the wider Archives and Special Collections team for their initial suggestions of suitable material.

I hope you enjoy the journey and be sure to follow @PalaceGreenLib on social media for the next chapters of the exhibition, where we will be investigating the differences between travellers and tourists, examining the legacies of European exploration and sharing stories of pioneering women travellers.

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