Readersforum's Blog

September 26, 2011

Bodleian Library shows off treasures, from Magna Carta to Shakespeare

Detail from a 14th-century account of Marco Polo's travels, one of the items in the Bodleian's exhibition. Photograph: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Oxford library to ask exhibition visitors which items deserve permanent display – including a First Folio it once threw away.

By Maev Kennedy

A spectacular exhibition of the greatest treasures of one of the most famous libraries in the world features a monument to past folly: a large battered leather volume the Bodleian Library in Oxford sold off as surplus to requirements in 1664 and had to raise a fortune to buy back almost 250 years later.

Now, rather than getting rid of the exhibits, it is holding them in storage. Visitors to the Bodleian’s new exhibition, will be invited to suggest which ones deserve to be given permanent display in the new gallery.

The £78m transformation of the New Bodleian will give the library climate-controlled stores and reading rooms, and a museum-quality gallery for the first time.

But few outsiders have any idea of how extraordinary its contents are.

They include Magna Carta; a pristine Gutenberg Bible; a dazzling 14th-century travels of Marco Polo; Philip Pullman; William Blake; Jane Austen’s handwritten compendium of her own earliest writings; a 13th-century bestiary showing an elephant being strangled by the only animal it fears, a serpent like dragon; the Codex Mendoza, an account made for the first Spanish viceroy of the Aztec civilisation Spain was destroying; Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein with suggestions scribbled in by Shelley; and the earliest almost complete copy of a poem by Sappho, from a cache of extraordinary documents found in a rubbish dump in Egypt in the 19th century.

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