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Unlocking a national treasure and the future of online exhibitions

Media release

Wednesday 22 June 2022


Everyone will be able to access some of the world's rarest early modern books, including personal letters written by King Charles I, thanks to a new team of digital designers, library specialists and Australian academics. Work is underway on a cutting-edge digital exhibition of one of the largest collections of rare books and manuscripts, drawn from a formative period in Western political history: the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The new exhibition will provide public access to this national treasure beyond the State Library and completely transform the concept of an online exhibition.

Over a period of 40 years, late Melbourne barrister John Emmerson amassed around 5000 English books and ephemera from the 15th to the 18th centuries, with a particular focus on the English Civil War, and the reign and execution of Charles I. The Emmerson family generously donated it to the State Library in 2015. The Emmerson Collection rivals international collections held by major institutions around the world. The Emmerson Linkage project team will open up important parts of this extraordinary collection, making it accessible to all Victorians and bringing it to national and international prominence.

The project led by ANU Professor Rosalind Smith, will combine cutting edge digital technologies and archival research, redefining how online exhibitions are created and experienced. Users will be able to choose their own adventure while exploring the Emmerson collection, see inside rare books, and visualise the historical connections between each printed work, as if they were receiving a personal tour from a Library curator.

Richly textured 3D models will allow users to examine the structure of rare books, some of which are too fragile to be handled. Digital restoration of embroidered bindings and raised wirework will present these beautiful, intricate books as they would have appeared for their original owners – members of the British Royalty and archbishops - some 400 years ago.

State Library Victoria Senior Librarian Dr Anna Welch is part of the project team and excited about the possibilities

‘This digital exhibition will do what a library catalogue cannot, and is not designed to do, which is to make and visualise connections between books both within their own historical context, as well as across time and between collections. It will also draw out the connections between people, places and books in a dynamic way, helping people explore the rich network of relationships from which history is woven’ she said.

Project lead, Professor Rosalind Smith said, ‘The Emmerson collection is a national treasure, the first and only early modern archive of scale to be held by an Australian institution.’

‘It contains some amazing, hitherto unseen material, including some beautiful, embroidered bindings, fascinating marginal markings by a whole range of readers, gorgeous bookplates, a huge collection of pamphlets relaying the news of the time, and some of the period’s most important and widely read books. ‘

‘The digital exhibition will bring this collection to life outside the bounds of the library walls, combining digital design, new ontologies for organising and understanding material and the expertise of the early modern scholars on the team to break new ground in the dissemination of physical collections online.’

The digital exhibition will explore seven themes:

1. Making books: the materiality of and crafts involved in producing books

2. Reading books: marginalia, bookplates and other signs of ownership and use

3. Collecting books: Emmerson as a collector and his interest in 17th-century collectors

4. Literature: Reading for pleasure in the 17th century

5. The Regicide: the trial and execution of Charles I and its aftermath

6. It’s Not Easy Being Queen: the lives of royal women in the Stuart Court

7. Times of Crisis: living through plague and civil war

The Emmerson Linkage Project is funded by the Australian Research Council. The team comprises:

  • Professor Rosalind Smith, Chair of English Literature and Director, Centre for Early Modern Studies, Australian National University.
  • Professor Mitchell Whitelaw, School of Art and Design, Australian National University.
  • Paul Salzman, Emeritus Professor of English Literature, La Trobe University, Conjoint Professor, University of Newcastle, Member of the Emmerson Board, State Library Victoria.
  • Anna Welch, PhD, Senior Librarian, History of the Book & Arts at State Library Victoria.
  • A/Prof Patricia Pender, English and Writing, Director of the Gender Research Network, University of Newcastle.
  • A/Prof Sarah Ross, School of English, Film, Theatre, Media Studies, and Art History, Victoria University Wellington.
  • Julia Rodwell, PhD candidate, Australian National University.
  • Julie Robarts, PhD, research assistant, Australian National University.

The new choose your own adventure digital exhibition will be live in July 2023.

Interviews are available with Dr Anna Welch, Senior Librarian, State Library Victoria and Professor Rosalind Smith, Project Lead, Australian National University.

-ENDS-

About State Library Victoria

State Library Victoria is Australia’s oldest public research library and one of the first free libraries in the world. As the custodian of Victoria’s history, the library has a rich collection of physical and digital items such articles, artworks, photographs, manuscripts, books, journals, artefacts that are accessible to the public via exhibitions, online catalogue searches, podcasts and videos.