Manuscripts and the Medieval World in the Museum Today

Project Overview: 

The title of this project emphasizes our classroom, the objects that we have to work with, and the members of the general public whom we teach. As manuscripts curators at the J. Paul Getty Museum we contribute to a robust program that yields three to four exhibitions a year. Our collection consists entirely of manuscripts, light sensitive objects that require frequent rotation when on display.

Manuscripts produced in Europe and the greater Mediterranean world are handwritten books on animal skin parchment or paper, and they often feature painted decoration or embellishment with gold or other metallic leaf. Our students are the general public and online audiences around the world. As curators who stage the lesson plan, we are often not present to see how our information is being received by roughly one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred-thousand visitors per exhibition that enter our gallery.

As public medievalists, we know that we have to offer a corrective to Eurocentric or nationalistic tropes of Crusades, castles, and cathedrals (codified by nineteenth-century scholarship and reinforced by Hollywood productions and other avenues of popular culture). To the degree that our collection allows, we also try to nuance the ways that medieval Europeans were connected to and concerned about the world beyond their doorsteps. This essay provides strategies for presenting global narratives through local collections, leveraging the Getty’s western European collections to expand outward into the greater medieval world through object case studies focused on manuscripts, materials, and the movements thereof.

Illuminated manuscripts allow us to glimpse the real and imagined worlds of medieval artists, patrons, thinkers, writers, pilgrims, and travelers. In a time before the borders of cities, nations, and even continents were clearly defined or established, individuals could turn to texts – including epic romances, world histories, encyclopedias, travel literature, and sacred writings – to learn about distant lands and peoples. Many of these accounts were accompanied by stunning illuminations, which gave life to a world that was otherwise accessible only to indomitable travelers or a vibrant imagination.

Curators are charged with the care and display of art objects, and the sharing of histories that are directly tied to the objects in a particular collection. The Getty acquired the Peter and Irene Ludwig collection of manuscripts in 1983, making possible the display of important illuminated books from the major European schools of book production during the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This group of objects included as well significant examples from major centers of the Byzantine world, historic Armenia, Tunisia, Safavid Isfahan (Iran), and the colonial Andes. From that time forward, the institution has continued to expand the breadth of the collection with the purchase of texts from Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia, and in 2018, the acquisition of the Rothschild Pentateuch, a rare and remarkable northern European Hebrew manuscript from the late thirteenth century.

This project highlights our methodology of “mapping”: the ways in which manuscripts allow us to chart pathways of knowledge and networks of trade; the possibility of finding early globalisms through loan objects from local and international institutions; the curatorial challenge of presenting inclusive and global views of the past within a non-encyclopedic museum.

Project Team: 

Kristen Collins, Curator of Manuscrips, J. Paul Getty Museum

Bryan C. Keene, Associate Curator of Manuscripts, J. Paul Getty Museum