Legal history on display

Rare books, digital libraries, legal iconography and landscapes are among the subjects about which I have written most of my postings. A series of contributions on centers of legal history is also one of the backbones of my blog. Only a few postings have been concerned only with one or more exhibitions. Some of these exhibitions – at museums, archives, libraries or in the form of online exhibitions – really merit attention because of the great care with which the items on display have been selected, their interesting features and the judicious commentaries added to them. Some exhibitions succeed in presenting a familiar history with unknown objects and add a new narrative to well-known facts. Such exhibitions might challenge existing views or stick too close to prevailing opinions, they might in your opinion put undue emphasis on certain aspects of a subject, but you seldom come away from them without food for thought. Very often they succeed in presenting important items from collections in a new way.

The motive for looking at exhibitions concerning legal history comes from the congress calendar at this blog. Among this year’s workshops is a workshop on rare legal books to be taught by Mike Widener of the Lilian Goldman Law Library at Yale University. From June 13 to 17 he will teach for the Rare Book School at Charlottesville, Virginia, a course entitled Law Books: History & Connaisseurship. To my happy surprise Widener mentions in his preliminary reading list for the participants of his course a number of online exhibitions created by five American law libraries, the Harvard Law School Library, the Tarlton Law Library of the University of Texas at Austin, the Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room of the Boston College Law Library, the Robbins Collection at Boalt Hall of the University of California at Berkeley, and the Rare Book Room of the Lilian Goldman Law Library. I had already encountered a number of these online exhibitions, but I had not thought yet of bringing them together. Widener shows his knowledge in particular by having traced the Robbins Collection’s exhibition Milestones in Legal Culture and Traditions, but more probably I simply succeeded earlier on in overlooking the link to the exhibits on the website of this fine library. Books, historical documents and records are the main items shown in these online exhibitions as objects of interest and importance.

Anyone looking for online exhibitions created by libraries or archives can benefit from the database for Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web, maintained by the Smithsonian Institution. American and British examples are surely overrepresented at this website, but the services it renders are most welcome. However, sometimes even this database cannot help you, for example when an online exhibition has moved to a new URL, or worse, has been removed from the web, due to reconstruction of a website or to sheer misfortune. The Jacob Burns Law Library of the George Washington University, Washington, D.C., organized in 2005 an exhibit called “The Duel“, but you cannot find it anymore at the URL provided. Luckily the Internet Archive enables you to retrieve it almost completely, only a number of images are missing. The article by Jennie C. Meade in the Fall 2005 GWMagazine, too, gives some impressions of this exhibit. Perhaps one day the online exhibition can be recovered. Meanwhile legal historians can view online back issues of the newsletter of the Friends of the Jacob Burns Law Library, A Legal Miscellanea. Miscellaneous, too, are the subjects of exhibitions I will mention here.

Exhibitions in America concerning legal books and legal history are announced in the newsletter of the Rare Books and Legal History section of the American Association of Law Libraries. An exhibition understandably not mentioned in the Fall 2010 issue has been redesigned and updated at Cornell University. Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire 100 Years Later, 1911-2011 is an exhibit created by Cornell’s International Labor Relations School and the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library. The exhibit does not only contain records of eye witnesses and survivors, and documents of the investigation and subsequent trial, but also materials concerning relief work and protest, and much more. When you check Cornell UL’s list of online exhibits you will soon find more legal history, for example in the Lafayette Collection and the Maurepas Collection, in an exhibit on the abolition of slavery and an exhibit on pirates in South East Asia, which I had already dutifully noted in an earlier post on piracy. Even if it does not touch directly on American legal history I would not skip looking at the Cornell copy of the Gettysburg Address. The web-only exhibit 25 Years of Political Influence: The Records of the Human Rights Campaign from 2006 definitely has an impact for legal history.

What about online exhibitions elsewhere? On my webpage for digital collections and legal history I have so far put together just a relatively small number of exhibitions, mainly image collections, because I have not really been searching for them. Searchable databases have received more attention than online exhibits. In Italy I have spotted the online exhibition I libri antichi di Angelo Sraffa of the Università Bocconi, Milan, on the sixteenth-century lawyer Benvenuto Stracca and his treatise De mercatura and other early works on commercial law. Until that time commercial law had not been a separate field of law, worthy of treatises for its own sake. The accompanying bibliography will help you to explore this theme further.

Online exhibitions are often created for educational purposes. When you consider carefully the amount of research involved, the care bestowed on clear presentation and insightful writing, and the often beautiful design of special websites, you should not hesitate to admit their value for research and academic teaching. Sometimes individuals create websites around themes, without the help of a back-office team, and it is tempting to criticize the results in one way or another, but would you have taken the trouble to create them? Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, creator of the Famous Trials website, is right to stress the fact that you need to consider the background of such websites. It is one thing to use his in my eyes very interesting set of pages on the Scottsboro Trials, and another to be aware of Cornell University Law Library’s special collection on these trials. Institutions such as the American National Archives, the Library of Congress, the British Library and the National Archives at Kew deliberately create different presentations for different groups within the public; the links lead you to overviews of their online exhibitions. Taking Liberties: The struggle for Britain’s freedom and rights is an example of an exhibition within the online gallery of the British Library. This section is clearly different from the corner with the research guides and the catalogues. No doubt readers of Paul Halliday’s Habeas Corpus. From England to Empire (Cambridge, Mass.-London 2010) will find the treatment of habeas corpus in this exhibition incredibly brief and not up-to-date, but at the very least it is not given undue prominence. Other themes concerning liberties and freedom deserve attention, too, and there is no denying the judicious use of sources and images in this exhibition.

Anyone who thinks his or her institution can do a better job, should try to follow the arduous road from initial enthusiasm through hard work to a captivating and interesting website well worth visiting. Some libraries do not only create online exhibits, but also small dossiers. In past years the Dutch Royal Library has created such dossiers on the abolition of the death penalty and on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Links to important websites or a congress ensure that you are invited to look beyond these dossiers. To compensate for the Dutch only version at this website I offer you the overview of online exhibitions of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. From the almost embarrassing wealth of archives, digital collections and three (!) Virtual Libraries at the IISH I will only mention the History of Work Information System with occupational titles from five centuries accompanied by contemporary images, and the digital version of two economic enquêtes from medieval Holland, the Enqueste from 1494 and the Informacie from 1514, with a bibliography on both documents.

At the end of this post I would have liked to end with giving the link to a worldwide register of online exhibitions that emulates the functions for the Anglophone world of the site created by the Smithsonian Institution. As for now I have not yet found it, but writing this post has convinced me it is really worth searching for. The History Guide of the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen will lead you to some virtual exhibitions, for example on the German Holy Empire, but Clio Online-Fachportal für die Geschichtswissenschaften – with an interface in German, French or English – will bring you more. Surely similar sites exist which enable you to search for online exhibitions and much more, and if you know about them, please share your information with me. I guess the circle is round for today with finding thanks to Clio Online the online exhibition Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress 1789-1791 at the George Washington University. And if you prefer knowing more about rare legal books there is Mike Widener’s reading list, or even attending his course in June.

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s