Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Displaying the Rubáiyát in Miniature

The Ransom Center's exhibition The Persian Sensation: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the West explores how a translation of a Persian poem went from obscurity to celebrity in British and American culture.

One manifestation of the Rubáiyát's popularity was the publication of dozens of miniature editions, 29 of which have been included in the exhibition. Exhibition Services staff member Sonja Reid and Curator of British and American Literature and exhibition co-curator Molly Schwartzburg discuss their collaborative project to create an effective display for these compelling artifacts.

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MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: I'm Molly Schwartzburg. I'm Curator of British and American Literature at the Ransom Center and am one of the co-curators of The Persian Sensation: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the West

SONJA REID: I'm Sonja Reid, and I work in the exhibition preparation services division.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: The Rubáiyát exhibition was really fun to put together, partly because the Rubáiyát was such a huge collecting phenomenon in the early twentieth century.

As I was in the initial stages of looking through the collection, I noticed that there were a lot of miniature books in the stacks. We actually have a miniature book collection where many of these items come from, and I saw that there were 40 or 50 miniature books, including two books that were, at one point, the smallest book in the world.

There were so many miniature books that I thought, "Well, could we put them all in the exhibition?" And so I went to the exhibits prep staff and started asking questions about what we could do to put as many of these in the exhibition as possible. And working in conjunction with Sonja, we were able to put together what is definitely one of the most popular parts of the show. You turn a corner, and all of the sudden, you're faced with 29 little tiny books all in a cabinet, which give you a feel for how huge this phenomenon was and how many people wanted to have a special little Rubáiyát.

SONJA REID: When Molly came and talked to me about the display that she wanted to do for this, the image that came up in both of our minds was a Victorian butterfly collection, how they're all on pins and how it shows a variety of them—just showing them all together as a unit of items. And the first thing I thought of when she was showing me all of them was, "Gosh, we've got to make these supports look as invisible as possible. And the way that we usually mount books when we're putting them into a wall case like this is to use Plexiglass, and we shape and polish and bend it to each specific book. But it's about 3/16 of an inch thick, which sounds really, really small, but next to many of these books, that would be as thick as some of the books were.

So, I started to think about the polyester film, which we call Mylar that I could use to form supports that would be much less obtrusive. But as I was folding them, I found that the Mylar becomes almost a little bit puffy.

It folds over, but it doesn't hold a crease perfectly. So, in order to get it to lie down more, the conservation department recently got an ultrasonic welder.

And so I used that welder to basically weld the two sheets of Mylar together so then the Mylar would be more solid and we wouldn't be using adhesive, which could potentially get onto the books and damage them.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Selecting items is followed by what's called an assessment, and that's a meeting the curators, the conservators, and the exhibits prep staff where we decide what items are going to go into the show. That's a meeting where we decide, as a group, what items can go into the show in the first place—some items are too delicate to display—and how they can be displayed.

I had gone through with my co-curator, Michelle Kaiserlian, and chosen the selection of the books that we wanted to have open. Now, if we had had all of the miniature books closed, it would be very easy, but having them open required creating special mounts for them, which Sonja ended up doing for us. So, at the assessment, the conservators ended up looking at each of the books we wanted to have open, determined how far open we could have the book based on the strength of its spine and health of its spine and how it was bound, and then after that, everything gets whisked off to the exhibits prep room where it sits and waits for it to be mounted.

We realized quickly that many of the books needed to be lifted up off the surface of the case. Otherwise, they would look too flat, too shallow. But if they were lifted off, placed on top of something, they would look as though they were floating in the air, and there would be a depth and energy to the cabinet.

SONJA REID: So, I had mounted all of the books onto an insert that fits into the wall cases that are installed in the gallery. And so I could do the installation under good lighting conditions and then bring it down on a cart and then lift up the entire insert and fit it in. And it's pretty easy, but of course, you want to make sure when it's 29 items and you're slipping it in there, that it's on well. But it worked on the first try.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: Did it look the way you thought it would?

SONJA REID: It did! Actually it looked great, but at the same time, I'd spent so much time working on the supports—and even though I know that I want them to be invisible—it was actually disappoint that I couldn't see any of them.

MOLLY SCHWARTZBURG: And it really has had the effect we wanted it to. People walk into that section of the gallery, and it's like a magnet. They can't help it. They have to go look at the miniature books.