Monster Moves

If any of you picture archives and libraries as stuffy, repressive places where you must sit tight on your seat and keep buttoned up at all costs, think again and read on!

Every year we take part in Arts Across Learning, a city-wide festival in which local organisations and venues work with freelance art practitioners to provide workshops and activity sessions for Aberdeen City Council’s primary schools. For us, it’s an opportunity both to explore our historic collections in a fun way using different art genres, and also to keep adding to our repertoire of skills for interpreting our collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives to young audiences.

This year we were paired with a dance tutor to put together a creative movement workshop for very young children of P1-2 (roughly age 5-6). New territory for us! Most of our school audience is upper primary, and while we use the visual arts, creative writing and even drama regularly in our workshops, dance was something new for us altogether. We chose the treasured Aberdeen Bestiary, a sumptuous 12th-13th century manuscript book of animals, as our source material for the workshop. The Bestiary is a gift for working with children, with its gorgeous gold-illuminated illustrations and its quirky accounts of animal behaviour. f9r_panther Illustration: a (blue and spotty) panther, from the Bestiary. According to the writers, the panther is such a sweet-smelling animal that the other creatures of the world follow it wherever it goes, drawn by its lovely scent. One gets the feeling that the monks who wrote the Bestiary had never seen a panther in action! However the factual basis for the animal stories was not so important for the monks as the religious meaning that could be drawn from them: the story is primarily a metaphor for the attraction of Christ for His followers.

Our dance tutor was Linzy McAvoy, representing Aberdeen’s Citymoves Dance Agency. We knew right from the start that Linzy was going to be fantastic to work with, and so it proved. Linzy immediately perceived the dramatic potential of the Bestiary and entered wholeheartedly into our plan to bring the book to life for the children, bringing her expertise in teaching dance to create a fun, movement-based exploration of the numerous mythical beasts of the book.

The structure of the workshop followed our usual format, where we introduce the children to the topic as a whole, and then get down to showing the original items from the collection. Seeing an original historical book or archive is an awe-inspiring experience, and we always try to show them as much original material as possible. Of course, our Bestiary is one of the few items in our collections that is just too precious to be taken out (in fact, it is still “resting” after its star turn in our 2012 Gilded Beasts exhibition), but we do have a beautiful, high-quality facsimile copy of our Bestiary’s sister book, the Ashmole Bestiary. Using digitised images from our book, and showing the facsimile of the Ashmole, the pupils got an idea of just how stunning the Bestiary is itself. We talked a long time about the making of the Bestiary: who made it (monks), and how it was made (using vellum, gold leaf and ink written with a feather quill). We also speculated about how the monks knew about some of the more exotic animals in the book, in a time when very few people travelled and the only way you could travel faster than you could walk was by horse. In fact, it was remarkable how focussed the children were, and how many pertinent questions they had to ask. I spent nearly twice as long with these 5 and 6-year-olds as I usually do with the older children! Their curiosity about the book seemed limitless.

From then on, it was all about movement and energy! First of all the children warmed up by moving across the room like some of the real animals in the Bestiary, thinking about how each animal moves and what kind of noise it makes. We had lots of stomping elephants, wriggling snakes, scuttling crabs and hopping frogs.

Once the children were warmed up we honed in on some of the rather more fantastical creatures in the Bestiary, such as the ever-popular Bonnacon (a bull-like creature that, when hunted, farts fire at its pursuers), and the anphivena, a two-headed, snake-like monster. f12r_bonnacon_detail The children worked in pairs to experiment with ways they could make a two-headed creature like the anphivena by joining their bodies together in different places. After making a series of different two-headed monsters, they then tried to make their creatures move around the room – quite a difficult thing to do when you have two brains wanting to go in different directions. Some serious negotiation was required in order to get those two-headed beasts walking!

Then it was on to imagining new mythical monsters, made up of parts of different animals. Individually the children tried moving like one animal while making the noise of another. Then, after seeing Tony Meeuwissen’s interactive book Remarkable Animals, which features real animals that can be mixed up with each other to create altogether unheard of combinations, the children worked with each other again to figure out how they could each contribute different animal parts and amalgamate them to make new monsters. The workshop finished with a demonstration of all the different mythical beasts, and then it was back to school.

Although we had both felt initially nervous about how well dance and rare books would go together, and also how well a rare books-based workshop would work for such a young age group, we were amazed at how successfully it went down with the children. Since then we have worked together on another similar-themed event (see our previous Family Fun post on Marvels of the North), and we hope to find opportunities to create more creative movement workshops in the future.

Thanks to Kingswells and Holy Family RC Primary Schools for coming to the Library and creating some fantastic mythical monster movements for the Arts Across Learning Festival. It was great having you.

For more on the Aberdeen bestiary, follow the link to the Bestiary website. There you can discover more about the history and codicology of the book and read translations of each page. You can also read about the many other events and activities we have run with children using the Bestiary as source material. In addition, new, high-quality photography has been carried out recently on the Bestiary by the Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care (CHICC) at the John Rylands Library, as part of the redevelopment of the Bestiary website. The new images will eventually be available online. Read more about the project on the Special Collections website and Facebook page.

Posted by: Sarah

Marvels of the North

Our new exhibition The Far North – Frozen Stars, Shifting Ice & the Silence Beyond opened at The Sir Duncan Rice Library at the beginning of April, and to herald in the exhibition public programme we celebrated the Easter holidays with two Family Fun sessions, exploring the creatures, both real and imaginary, depicted in the exhibition.

Our first Family Fun, Monster Movement, played with the idea of the monstrous creatures that early explorers thought lived in the Arctic seas. Tales were told of a great sea serpent that lived in the ocean, though descriptions of its exact appearance differed. In the exhibition is an illustration from the Natural History of Norway by Danish scholar Erik Pontoppidan (1752), which shows two imaginings of the serpent – with one depiction distinctly resembling our very own Loch Ness monster.

p196_sea serpent compressedIn the Special Collections we also have a copy of Abraham Ortelius’ extraordinary map of Iceland, in which the sea is populated by all sorts of hideous sea monsters. On the back of the map is a key, which describes the monsters’ appearance and habits. Some of the monsters are clearly related to real Arctic animals such as the narwhal and the walrus, even if the descriptions are a bit strange. For example, the Rostunger, which seems to be based on the walrus, is said to sleep while hanging off rocks and cliffs by its two long teeth!

pi f912_00_Ort P 2_Islandia compressedIn this Family Fun session participants thought about how sea monsters move. They created their own Arctic sea monsters, making large versions that hung on strings and could wiggle, and close-ups of the heads, with working jaws. Each monster had to have an identity card as well, which described not only how it moved, but also its appearance, habitat, feeding habits and level of threat to Arctic explorers. Most of the monsters created that day were so ferocious they were off the scale.

Participants also got the chance to work with creative movement tutor Linzy McAvoy, using their bodies to explore monster movements and bringing their monsters literally to life. Check out the pictures below to see what happened at Monster Movement.

A week later Family Fun was back with Fauna of the Floes, this time discovering the factual animals that really inhabit the Arctic. The rare books in the exhibition abound with illustrations and anecdotes of polar bears, walruses, seals and many, many more creatures of the Arctic. There is also a real narwhal tusk, and some beautiful carved husky dogs from the University of Aberdeen Museums’ collections on display.

Participants made Arctic mini-worlds depicting the animal life both on and below the ice floes. As well as taking inspiration from the items on display in the exhibition, we used copies of a map from one of the rare books in the Special Collections, An Account of the Arctic Regions by William Scoresby. The book was published in 1820 and you can see that at that time, the top of Greenland and Canada were not yet discovered, as the map shows just blank space instead of land and coast. One of the fun facts about this map was that its maker, William Scoresby, went on his first expedition to the Arctic at the age of only eleven! His father was an explorer and that was how he got to go on his first voyage at such a young age.

Arctic map by William ScoresbyParticipants incorporated the map into their artwork, using it to make animals to inhabit box-worlds, and as the background of the sea and ice for miniature ice floes.

If you fancy making your own Arctic sea monsters or ice floe mini-worlds, why not take inspiration from our photographs and have a go at home. Feel free to download and use the Sea Monster Identity Card and the Arctic Regions Map.

Also, if you would like to know more about the sea monsters in Ortelius’ map of Iceland, check out this fascinating blog post. The author researched the origins of each of the monsters depicted in the map.

Our next Family Fun will be on Saturday 30th May, as part of the University’s May Festival. Come along to The Sir Duncan Rice Library between 1 and 4 pm.

Posted by: Sarah

A tapestry bible

Welcome to our new bookbinding thread in the Collections Highlight post series. Here at the Special Collections Centre, we are lucky to have a wide variety of works in their original bindings which reveal much about the history of each book. We plan to share some of these exceptional bindings one by one, so keep a look out for forthcoming posts in this series.

A bible in a tapestry binding


Special Collections holds a bible with an exceptionally beautiful embroidered binding. Rich textile bindings were not uncommon in the 17th century decorating devotional books such as bibles and psalters but this binding is unusually fine. The use of so much silver thread is rare and the binding also has what we would call today sequins but which were known as spangs or spangles in the 1600s which add an extravagant texture. The design of fruit and flowers is finished in coloured silks of blue, rose and green. Embroidered bindings were usually commissioned individually but we do not know who the original owner of this bible was.

The bible is interesting too. It is an edition of the Geneva bible with a false title-page claiming to be published in London in 1599 but in fact printed in Amsterdam in 1633 and then imported, illegally. Bound with the bible is an edition of the psalms, published in Edinburgh in 1632 by Janet Kene, the widow of Andro Hart, who had been one of Scotland’s most successful publishers and also importer of books.
1633 was the year in which the first edition of the King James Authorised Bible was printed in Scotland by Robert Young of London who had been appointed ‘King’s Printer in Scotland’. Janet had opposed this appointment, petitioning Parliament in protest but with no success. Perhaps this edition of the bible and psalms could be viewed as a direct challenge not only to the authorised bible but to a monopoly on bible printing in Scotland. Certainly, it was a book that was precious and special enough to someone to warrant the finest of coverings.

The Bible, that is, the holy Scriptures conteined in the Olde and Newe Testament… Amsterdam : Crafoorth, 1633.
pi 22:42 633 1

If you like this post, let us know in the comments. Also if you know of any special bindings in our collections that you would like to see featured, please let us know!

Posted by: Jane

Discover the World: India

It’s been a bit silent on the Special Collections Learning blog front for the last few months, but that’s not because nothing has been happening! On the contrary, life at the Special Collections Centre has been extremely busy – so busy in fact, we’re only just getting around to our first blog post of 2015 now, two and half months into the year.

February was our busiest single month for school workshops so far, with lots of schools visiting to learn about Medieval medicine and art, the Ancient Egyptians and the Jacobites. We also kick started our 2015 Family Fun programme on Saturday 21st with a fantastic afternoon of architecture and design.

For Discover the World: India we decided to take our inspiration from the wonderful watercolour sketches of early 19th century traveller and connoisseur, Robert Wilson. In an age when it took months to cross an ocean and the only way of getting across Europe faster than your own feet could take you was to go by horse, Robert Wilson explored Mediterranean Europe, Egypt, Nubia, Persia (now Iran) and even India. This intrepid explorer bequeathed his collection of travel journals to the University of Aberdeen, and now they live in the Special Collections Centre. We were very keen to use his Indian journal for Family Fun, as it shows his fascination for Indian architecture, in particular the magnificent Mughal tombs and palaces.

(copyright for all images belongs to the University of Aberdeen)

We took inspiration from his drawings to design our own Mughal-style palaces, creating mock-up facades and decorating them with typical Mughal architectural features such as onion domes, arches, minarets and chatris.

We learned a lot about Mughal architecture. The Mughals (pronounced MOO-gulls) were a Muslim dynasty of emperors who conquered most of India and reigned for over 300 years. They built very large, grand buildings which are famous for their beauty and splendour. The most famous of these is probably the Taj Mahal, which was built by one of the emperors as a tomb for his wife.

Make your own Mughal palace

Building walls template

If you would like to create your own Mughal palace facade, feel free to download our wall template (click on the link below). Print the template out to A3 size on card, and then cut it out, fold where instructed and stick it down on to a second piece of A3 card. This is your basic wall structure, standing on the ground. Now you can draw and cut out domes, arches, minarets and chatris and add them to create a fantastic Mughal building. Use the photographs above from our Family Fun to give you ideas. And don’t forget to decorate the walls! Every inch of a real Mughal building was covered with intricate tiled decoration.

Mughal palace walls template

Posted by: Sarah

Book Week Scotland 2014

Book Week Scotland is always our busiest and probably favourite week of the library calendar and this year was no different. In fact our Book Week Scotland programme was bigger and better than it’s ever been. Here’s a round up of all the book related fun that happened here at the Special Collections Centre.

Flash Fiction 2014

2014 Flash Fiction images

Launched in September, writers of all ages and backgrounds were inspired by images from our collection to write a 500-word short story. The children’s competition was judged by prize-winning author Caroline Clough, while the adult competition judge was local author and University of Aberdeen lecturer Dr Helen Lynch. The high quality of writing gave Caroline and Helen a difficult job choosing our winners. Congratulations to Phil Olsen and Anisah McDonagh, our 2014 Flash Fiction winners! Read their winning stories as well as all the other Flash Fiction entries on our Book Week Scotland website.

Bookbinding Workshop and Talk

This popular workshop has become a staple of our events programme and always books up quickly. Participants learn practical bookbinding skills with our Book Conservator, Brannah Mackenzie while our Rare Books Cataloguer, Jane Pirie, talks them through a range of amazing bindings from our collection.

Collections Close-up

We were very excited to pilot a new event series during Book Week Scotland, our Collections Close-ups. These events give the public the chance to get up close and personal with the treasures of the Special Collections Centre in an informal setting, asking questions of Jane and our Senior Rare Books Librarian, Keith O’Sullivan. Held at lunch time over three days the Book Week Scotland Collections Close-ups showcased some of our most beautiful and rare books including Audubon’s Birds of America Volume 2, the Medieval Hortus sanitatis and a collection of tiny books.

The Big Book Theory – Teen Book Quiz

Hosted by our teen volunteer, Alice, this quiz tests the literature knowledge of young people in a fun and informal setting. Our Book Week Scotland quiz was very popular with teams coming from Torry Academy, Aberdeen Grammar School and the International School Aberdeen as well as a small team of two from Harlaw and Cults Academies. This team (the Lit Amis) were our winners, taking home some book vouchers, while the winner of the most inventive team name went to Torry Academy’s Swashbooklers. Well done to Alice for hosting a brilliant quiz and congratulations to all of our teams!

Big Book of Beasts!

Big Book of Beasts - making slithery snakes

Thursday was a day of storytelling and crafts for schools, all inspired by the magnificent medieval Aberdeen Bestiary, or book of beasts. Primary classes from three local schools explored the Bestiary with the Learning and Outreach team, heard tales of animals, myth and adventure from storyteller Diana Bertoldi and made some slithery snakes to take back to school.

Bestiary Bake Off

Bestiary Bake Off

Bakers were invited to be inspired by images from our amazing Aberdeen Bestiary to create cakes, cupcakes and biscuits. This was a challenge for their decoration abilities and our winners really rose to the challenge. The Bestiary’s swan and bees inspired winning entries in all three categories. We had some fantastic prizes including a signed Mary Berry recipe book and a private audience with the Bestiary!

Book Laboratory

This year we worked with our colleagues in the Glucksman Conservation Centre to deliver an exciting event for families during Book Week Scotland. Participants learned how our conservators look after our books from Head Conservator Erica Kotze and tried out suminagashi, a Japanese paper marbling technique. Some amazing patterns were made by our incredibly creative participants. Then Brannah taught everyone how to make Japanese ledger books to take home with them.

It was a whirlwind of a week but we enjoyed every minute of it and we’re looking forward to next year’s Book Week Scotland already!

In the Conservation Studio: book cradles

Hello, everyone! We are the two new (soon to be old) interns at the Glucksman Conservation Centre. We come from MA Conservation courses in the UK – Carrie is at Camberwell studying books and archival materials conservation, Stacey is at Northumbria studying conservation of art on paper – and we’re here to give you a look at one of the projects we’ve been working on during our time here.

Pic of carrie and stacey

Stacey (left) and Carrie (right) watching a demonstration by Brannah (middle), the book conservator.

A new exhibition which explores the influence of the University of Aberdeen’s founder, Bishop Elphinstone, will be opening in October in The Sir Duncan Rice Library gallery. Along with other university collection items, and objects from further afield, the exhibition will include seven books from the Special Collections Centre. The conservation team has been involved with the planning of the exhibition, to ensure that items are displayed in the safest way possible. As such, we have begun making book cradles for each of the volumes that will be exhibited.

Here are two types of book cradles, a titled cradle (behind), and a flat cradle (front)

Here are two types of book cradles, a titled cradle (behind), and a flat cradle (front).

There are several considerations to be taken into account when deciding the best way to display an item. For books, there are various types of cradles that can be used effectively. These can be made from different materials, like archival board or Perspex. It is important to ensure that the books’ joints and spine are well-supported throughout the duration of the exhibition, and that the materials used are strong, chemically stable, and won’t adversely affect the book while it is on display. For our purposes, it was decided that tilted cradles would be used, to improve readability for visitors, while also maintaining a safe angle of display for the books. Archival board was chosen which meets the criteria stated above. It is also cost-effective and good for the environment, as the cradles can be recycled after use.

Making a book cradle is not as easy as it may seem. Each cradle is customised to support a specific book, opened to a particular page. Every book going on display needs its own specially-made cradle, precisely measured with angles of tilt calculated.

The two of us had the opportunity to learn how to construct cradles from scratch, for two very different books in the exhibit. Have a look at some of the steps we took to reach the final product.

The position of the book is simulated in order to create an accurate profile drawing. It is important to ‘feel’ where the book is most comfortable when opened as the structure of the book can be damaged if it is opened too wide.

The profile of the book is recorded by tracing the outline of the book with a marker over a sheet of Perspex.

The outline is then transferred onto a sheet of paper which will be used throughout the entire cradle making process.

Some measurements and calculations taken to finalise the dimensions of the cradle.

Carrie making some reference points on her profile drawing.

Scoring sections of the archival board to achieve the bent portion of the cradle where the book will sit comfortably as indicated by the profile blueprint.

Melinex stripAdding clear strips that will be used to hold down the pages of the book during exhibition.

supportAdding additional support to the cradles

adding a lip to the cradleAdding a ‘lip’ to the front of the cradle for additional support and a cleaner aesthetic

Final cradle without bookFinal cradle with bookAnd here is one of the finished cradles with and without the book!

Posted by: Carrie and Stacey