Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shelley's Ghost, once the flesh melts away

A few days ago I went to Oxford to commune with Shelley's Ghost, the exhibition soon closing at the Bodleian, and wrote about my impressions. The website and catalogue will be ghosts of the ghost, I suppose, in that they will continue into the future, even when the corporeal body of the exhibition has been disassembled and returned to its dusty caskets.

The website
The website is good, as is de rigeur. It is available within the exhibition room on two terminals, which appear to be entirely internet-live and normal, except that they are missing their keyboards. With only a mouse for access, there is no chance that visitors might be tempted to ski off piste. Only now have I discovered the website's online contest: video yourself reading your favourite work by one of the quartet, and win the catalogue! The competition closed weeks ago, but the clips can be viewed here

Another feature that I hope more of the GLAM sector will take on board is a sort of layered presentation. In Shelley's Ghost, most items get a description, which sets facts in context; some get a transcription, if the handwriting warrants it; a list of owners, thus giving the chain of provenance, often a succession of Barons Abinger; references -- I'm not completely sure what this means -- perhaps the scholarly works in which the item was first made public or was most thoroughly described; and, crucially and to me innovatively, a tab inviting comments. I took advantage of this last, and am rather torn, in that I was the first to do so for all the pages I was interested in.  I suppose that made me the first of a new genus! Certainly I felt I was treading in virgin snow.

Social media
The website seems to make excellent use of social media, with Facebook and Twitter buttons at the top of each page, and in addition another button labelled "share", which pops out to reveal scores of ways to tell the world what you think of the content, from A1- Webmarks to Zootool. On the other hand, you could argue that the website makes zero use of social media, in that the pages I looked at said Tweets 0, Share 0. Those who put the time into designing the site, and those who argued in committee meetings for the inclusion of social media, might well say that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. I would counter that putting buttons on a site isn't enough; you have to make yourself known on social media with an active campaign. I am thinking here of poor William Godwin and his dire diaries, of which more another time. Anyway, this is a Wollstonecraft blog, not a website critique blog. (Bodleian, if you want me to handle your next social media campaign, just ask.)

Classroom materials
There is a series of pdf downloads of classroom materials that tie in to the National Curriculum, prepared by Oxford University's Classics Outreach Officer. (I suppose the Cambridge equivalent is Mary Beard.) (Geek joke.) My favourite of these sheets is "A Vindication of A Vindication", which asks the pupils to "read a passage of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Rewrite it as an article for the national media, from the point of view of a modern feminist."

I was also quite taken with A defence of 'poesie':
Many people have written about poetry in order to defend it as a meaningful genre and explain why it remains valuable to the author’s time. Reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘On Poetry’ and Percy Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’. How well do these work as a defence of poetry? Write your own piece to defend poetry. You should write either a short poem (under 20 lines) or a comment piece in newspaper style (maximum 200 words).
I'd love to read some of their responses. Rhetorical styles are so different, and legal and social battles have been won; it takes effort and imagination to make her meaning clear to today's generation.

The book
The catalogue is primarily by Stephen Hebron, the British Romanticist, with one chapter by his co-curator Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger, of the New York Public Library's Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. The official synopsis of the book states:
Few families enjoy such a remarkable reputation for their contribution to the literature and intellectual life of Britain as the Godwins and the Shelleys. Yet this reputation was shaped in a subtle way by the selective release of literary manuscripts into the public realm and the suppression of others. This book explores the lives and posthumous reputations of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley, and Mary's parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.
The Times Higher review by Duncan Wu calls it indispensable and unputdownable. It tells "a story that is astonishing in its eccentricity and could have only originated in Victorian England which, seen through its prism, looks like the maddest place on Earth." Most of this story desribes how and when material about the Shelleys was concealed, altered, or revealed; there was relatively little to hold back in the case of Wollstonecraft, as the grieving widower had spilled most of the beans in the tell-all 1798 Memoir.  The book does refer to "amateur astrologer Richard Garnett, erstwhile panjandrum of the British Museum and spiritual adviser to Lady Shelley" -- the Garnett who helped the biographer of the first full-length biography of Wollstonecraft, as I became aware last yearElizabeth Robins Pennell thanked Garnett by name in her brief preface in 1884.  

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