Making sense of multiplicity: thoughts on the Cathedral Libraries and Archives Association triennial conference ‘Religion in the world’s first industrial city’, Manchester Cathedral, 20-22 June 2007 What a time to be in Manchester! Sandwiched between the row over the virtual violence in a computer game featuring the cathedral, and the declaration in the city of Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman as the new Labour leaders; also just in time to sample the fabulous flower arrangements left over from Gary Neville’s wedding, sadly already being binned by Friday when we were due to leave.
Manchester on the surface is a bewildering city, vibrant with new life and new developments, brash new architecture rubbing shoulders with Victorian grandeur just as a rainbow range of races rubs shoulders in the streets. Our conference educated us in the understanding that this diversity is four-dimensional, an intrinsic feature of the city’s (relatively) short history.
Relatively that is in the perspective of some of our more ancient cathedrals. Little remains of Manchester’s early medieval history; its oldest monument is the now subterranean Hanging Bridge, imaginatively preserved and displayed in the basement of the Cathedral’s Visitor Centre, which was our base for the conference. The church itself has had three distinct identities, as medieval parish church, rebuilt in 1421 as a Collegiate Church, and elevated to cathedral status in 1847. But our conference effectively demonstrated the timeless truth that it is not the length of one’s history that matters, but how you present it.
Manchester is of course home to two of the most important and idiosyncratic of historic libraries, Chetham’s and John Rylands, now part of Chetham’s School of Music and Manchester University Library respectively. Two great benefactors from the two great ages of benefaction, their libraries still in their historic buildings, built like the cathedral in the charismatic pink sandstone of the western cathedrals, in their various shades from Carlisle to Hereford (and why have they never united as the Pink Ladies, soft and sensuous as the western climate, Cathedral Pink describing, like Hunting Pink, a concept not entirely related to an actual colour? … But I digress).
The sensitive sandstone was receptive to Manchester’s industrial pollution, most of it now cleaned away. But both libraries are still undeniably dark, suggesting a seriousness of purpose. In the newly restored and extended John Rylands this is emphasised by the stark brightness of the new extension through which one now enters, all glass and gleaming white walls, so that the shock when one enters the old part of the building is almost physical. Much of this is now open to the general public and converted into exhibition galleries, including the breathtaking historic reading room. The galleries include displays of some of the Library’s awesome range of historic treasures in newly installed showcases: very glamorous, but one did fear that this might be another case of New Building myopia: that every effort had gone into the initial display without enough thought for its long-term sustainability. Mr Hodgson our guide admitted that the tower-block-style display cases were the architect’s choice and less suitable for books than table-top cases. It was also a surprise to learn that there was no climate control in the cases beyond the use of artsorb, although the lighting was irreproachably fibre optic.
By contrast, the modest display at the Cathedral Visitor Centre was a classic of its kind: two display cases for original documents with their own individual microclimates and fibre optic lighting, and three banks of interactive touch screens, simply but imaginatively telling the story of the cathedral and its work. This display was already 11 years old, but still going strong. It could be a model for us all in our interpretive displays: both book- and user-friendly, professional but not over-complicated, high-tech but not gimmicky.
The same virtues were in evidence in the housing of the archives of Manchester Cathedral, still in the little room built for them over the north porch at the end of the 19th century, where a high quality of care was in evidence, assisted merely by a small de-humidifier and a heater. This is the work of the former archivist, Christopher Hunwick, genial and unflappable host and only begetter of the conference and all round good egg, on whom it would be impossible to lavish too much praise. Mr Hunwick has recently left the post in Manchester to become archivist to the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle, which makes the excellence of the conference even more remarkable.
Our tour of the cathedral and its archives was the first item on our programme, our guides being Mr Hunwick himself and Clare Hartwell, author of The History and Architecture of Chetham’s School and Library, a splendid work which is effectively a history of the cathedral also, since Chetham’s was installed in the buildings of the Collegiate Church. She introduced us to the many delights of the church, the crowning glory being perhaps the woodwork in the choir, where it was gratifying to note that nearly all the little angels in the arcading were reading books.
All our speakers and guides were informative and entertaining in their particular ways, and testified to the riches both of Manchester’s history and of cathedral archives. The paper that perhaps engaged the audience most was that of Dr Jeremy Gregory on ‘Assembling a Cathedral History for Manchester’, which summarised the history of cathedral histories to date. Many of us had an interesting perspective on this subject in having been involved in the creation of such works; it was odd and rather gratifying to find that this work itself has now become a fit subject for study. This paper should be required reading for anyone about to embark on a new cathedral history, or revising an old one, putting such a project into its historical perspective. And surely the great History of Cathedral Libraries and Archives is overdue? Not as daunting project as it might sound, as so many of them are already written and just need adapting. All we need are some nice pictures, an editor, a sympathetic publisher and a relatively modest grant …
It would be most useful therefore if this and all the papers could be made available to CLAA membership in some form. We need such conferences more perhaps than most librarians and archivists, not only to share experiences and information and gossip with colleagues, to meet old friends and make new ones, to recharge our batteries and renew our enthusiasm, but perhaps most of all to see our work and our places of work within their wider geographical and historical contexts. This conference was especially rewarding; it was remarkable, looking back, to reflect on how much intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual and gastronomic nourishment one had consumed within such a short time. Heartfelt thanks are due to all involved, in particular of course the Committee of the CLAA, and the inimitable Mr Hunwick.