Sacred scrolls and rare manuscripts

Written by | April 3, 2012

Rare manuscript exhibit The Gift of the Word now on view in PSU’s Millar Library
Carolee Harrison, conservation technician with Millar Library, arranges part of The Gift of the Word exhibit, which opens this week.

Carolee Harrison, conservation technician with Millar Library, arranges part of The Gift of the Word exhibit, which opens this week.

“There’s a dazzling spectrum of cultures represented in this show, and each one has a story about relationships that people have with the written word,” said Anne McClanan, a Portland State art history professor.

Millar Library’s Special Collections department will present its latest exhibit, The Gift of the Word, on the first floor of the library through Wednesday, June 20. The exhibition features several rare manuscripts, including 10th and 14th century Quran pages, an Ethiopian magic scroll, an Armenian prayer roll, a Coptic manuscript and a leaf from an Italian book of hours.

The oldest works in the exhibition are the two Quran pages. The 10th century page is in a style called Kufic script, the earliest phase of Arabic writing. The 14th century page has two styles of script and includes a gold leaf.

There are two scrolls featured in the exhibition, the Ethiopian magic scroll and the Armenian prayer scroll. Both were personal scrolls carried by individuals, usually women.

The Ethiopian scroll is rather large and is featured in its fully unrolled glory.

“There’s something about seeing its actual size and getting up close to it that really communicates the role it played in people’s lives, and not just the symbolic role but the physical role as well,” said Cristine Paschild, head of Special Collections at PSU, who said she appreciates the physical, hand-written nature of the pieces.

The Armenian prayer scroll, however, is narrow but very long—so long that it cannot be unrolled and viewed all at once.

“The prayers were often very specific to the user. They responded to individual needs,” McClanan explained. “All of the works in this exhibit were handmade, so they’re one of a kind. They resonate with the needs of the owner in a way that the printed book doesn’t.”

One of the world’s leading experts on Ethiopian magic scrolls, professor Steve Delamarter of George Fox University, will be giving a lecture about the scrolls tomorrow at PSU.

The exhibition represents the culmination of two of McClanan’s courses. Her summer capstone class did the original research, which included videos uploaded onto its own YouTube channel.

“It was remarkable how the summer capstone students took this research far out of the realm of their regular experience and did this really interesting body of research on them,” McClanan said.

In her art history seminar this fall, McClanan’s undergraduate students used the capstone students’ research to write the catalog entries, make podcasts and organize the exhibit.

Millar Library’s Special Collections department, which acquires, organizes and protects the rare manuscripts, is a fairly new department. Paschild, who came to PSU three-and-a-half years ago, is the first head of Special Collections.

After their collection of rare books grew from gifts and donations, the Special Collections department was formed in order to give the documents proper care. Paschild said she wants the department to be a good match for PSU.

“We’re not trying to have an ivory tower sort of museum experience. The goal is to protect the materials but, at the same time, let the students have as much access as possible,” Paschild said. “We see this as a resource for the students, the faculty and the community, so we’re always trying to welcome people in here.”

McClanan said she hopes that her students’ research and the exhibition will make it easier for people everywhere in the university to access and study these materials.

“Just as the seminar students built on the capstone student’s work, I’m hoping that this exhibit is a springboard for other students,” McClanan said. “The work offers all kinds of opportunities for students to do original research.”

The title The Gift of the Word has a two-fold meaning. Firstly, the exhibition honors the generosity of Gordon Hunter, who passed away in 2006.

“He was someone who had a lot of passion for libraries and especially for rare books and documents,” Paschild said. “He was kind enough to donate money to endow a fund that would be used to buy Special Collections materials, rare books and manuscripts. That’s been a real gift.”

“Everyone’s always so shocked when they hear that PSU bought this stuff,” McClanan said. “It’s because of this one person.”

Secondly, The Gift of the Word acknowledges “the many different ways that people have relationships with the written word,” McClanan said.

“As the written text is migrating from the printed page to the web or digital media, it’s especially interesting to revisit what forms the written word takes in the pre-printing era,” she said.

“In this day and age we’re getting used to expecting digital access to items,” Paschild added. “But the object itself tells you a lot that cannot be communicated through scanning it and sticking it online.”

PSU Special Collections presents
The Gift of the Word
On view through Wednesday
June 20
Millar Library, first floor
Free and open the public
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