Take a list of 20,000 items and select just ten. It sounds like a mammoth task, but that was the job I had when asked to produce an exhibition of literary gems from the MCC Library collection to tie in with the 150th edition of Wisden published this year.
Seven years in charge of the Library has given me a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the collection and the wealth of information it contains, but how to summarize that in ten exhibits, how to draw people into the stories it tells?
Although libraries and museums both aim to stimulate the joy of discovery, there is a key difference in the way they approach the visitor.
The opening of Cricket's 'Crown Jewels'
Libraries are coy and mysterious; in them knowledge is temptingly hidden behind bindings stacked together on crowded shelves, only by a physical interaction with the book itself can discovery take place.
The process is gradual and ritualistic. A museum naturally aims at an impact more visual and immediate. Displays need to grab the attention before the visitor moves on.
Devising a museum exhibition based on library materials therefore presents a distinct challenge.
On secondment at the Melbourne Cricket Club Library a couple of years ago I had the chance to play a role in their exhibition of cricket literature, The Crooked Staffe.
During tours of the exhibition I conducted jointly with the Librarian, David Studham, I was struck by the different and complementary approaches David and I took to the materials we were explaining.
David came at it from a bibliographic angle, looking at the evolution of the book and printed material, whereas I tried to explain how the history of cricket itself could be traced through this evolution.
It gave our visitors a very rounded understanding of cricket’s great literature and its importance to the game; it also gave me the first clue of the direction I would take in planning my own exhibition.
Part One of Cricket’s Crown Jewels could have displayed the ten rarest or most valuable books in the Library collection, or those with the greatest writing, but these do not necessarily lend themselves to attractive visual display, or explain the importance of literature to the culture and history of cricket.
Instead I set about selecting ten items which would tell fascinating and unexpected stories.
This allowed me some leeway with the displays as supporting items from the Museum collection could be used to add a visual context. It also allowed me to cheat, since sometimes two books can tell a story better than one.
Selecting the stories, and the books to tell them, was the easy part. Putting it all into practice was more tricky.
The exhibition was to coincide with a complete overhaul of the upper level of the Museum, to incorporate visible storage and work areas as well as display. Our initial ideas and requirements were fed through to Will Daykin and Claire Gresswell at Blue, the Design Company, whose job it was to give a visual stamp to them. Then it was the job of various craftsmen and contractors to turn the designs into reality.
Inevitably in such a chain of creativity, there were difficulties along the way. Delivery schedules slipped back, display mounts turned out not to fit their cases, I even had the disappointment of finding that one of the books I wanted to display was too fragile to leave the archive. (It’s still mentioned in the display text – see if you can spot it!)
But with the first Test of the summer here, everything has fallen into place at last, and the work we have undertaken over the last few months will make it much simpler to stage new exhibitions in future, starting with Cricket’s Crown Jewels Part Two, highlighting the Museum collection, next year.
Visitors to the Museum this summer will experience a building which showcases the dynamics of a working museum, encompassing display, conservation, storage and research under one roof.
They will see examples of the wide range of research which takes place in the MCC Library and Archive. And they will also see my own personal selection of ten stories from the literature of cricket which, I hope, will make them want to read more.