Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Exhibition Catalogue by Catherine McIlwaine. Review by the Tolkienist
An excellent book to outlast an excellent exhibition
To fully appreciate the amount of work which must have gone into the publication of this exhibition catalogue you have to realise a major exhibition of any kind may take three to five years to prepare, even if it seems to be on a small scale compared to blockbuster exhibitions in a museum like the Louvre, the MoMa or the Museum Island in Berlin. In some cases it might be even longer if you need to find the right partners at the right time, many years later.
The Bodleian Libraries are in a remarkable position as caretakers of the largest single Tolkien archive in the world which they have been entrusted with by the Tolkien family. To choose just from the over 500 boxes of manuscript material and over 300 volumes from Tolkien’s working library taken care of in the Bodleian would be a daunting project; however, to fully present an artist’s, an academic’s life such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s in a small space such as the ST Lee Gallery of the Bodleian Libraries must have seemed like an insuperable barrier.
There is another important partner which lent its support to this exhibition, the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at the Raynor Memorial Libraries, Wisconsin. If you have ever organised any event like this you will know how much time and effort has to be spent on communicating and cooperating with partners important to your exhibition, even if those are so supportive as everyone seems to have been with Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. And if you are planning a project in which the family of said artist should, of course, play an important part you will have to build a trust which would make Christopher Tolkien willing to lend “his [father’s] pipes, paints, boxes of coloured pencils and sealing wax”, as Catherine McIlwaine, curator to the exhibition and responsible for this catalogue, mentioned in her Reddit AMA.
For a full list of contents of the exhibition catalogue please visit my blog post.
And they call it a coffee table book. A coffee table book!
All of this taken together means a huge amount of effort which can only lead to an excellent exhibition like this one when it is paired with outstanding expertise in every field necessary to bring both the exhibition and the publication to life and this has been the case with this “coffee table book” as Jeff LaSala called it on Tor.com. Rightly so, as the quality of printing in both paperback and hardback is first class and browsing through this hefty tome entices you to enter the worlds of Middle-earth the moment you open it and share in the experiences of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life of wide-ranging interests. (I am not mentioning the Collectors’ Edition which I only opened once to see Priscilla Tolkien’s signature just to stow it away safely again!)
However, it is much more than just a coffee table book, both in its scope and content. It will serve as a stepping stone for many an academic venture to come as it offers insights into fields of research which were not easily – or not at all – available up to now. The introductory essays, short as they may seem, will come in handy at school and university level to get pupils and students a quick, first hand glance at their topic of interest. Also, the choices made by curator Catherine McIlwaine – to concentrate on The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, maps, drawings & illustrations as well as several personal items highlighting the many creative ventures Tolkien followed in the course of his life – have proven right, judging by the immense success of the exhibition. At the time of writing, Bodleian Libraries have confirmed more than 100,000 visitors have come to see Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, told me during the opening week the third print run to the hardback edition had been ordered. An exhibition catalogue which topped the Amazon charts the world over wasn’t something anyone had expected, obviously.
The keys to a successful exhibition catalogue
Everything which was necessary for a catalogue with the aim of promoting and outlasting its exhibition was in place and came together nicely. There are many things to be taken care of but this short list contains the most important ones:
- An interesting topic: J.R.R. Tolkien, the world’s most famous fantasy author
- An excellent collection to choose from, improved by lendings of superior quality
- Public support and interest in the exhibition
- Quality content by first class writers and scholars
- A team passionate about the topic and competent in all organisational areas
It is wonderfully pleasant to see that with an exhibition such as this the team behind it always walked the extra mile. With many other exhibitions you will find the text beside the exhibit to be the text in the catalogue; not so with Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth where you will find much more to read. The layout of the room was spot on, using the space available to its fullest and this was carried on into the book. Every single page is at the right place at the right time. The reproduction quality is outstanding. You can flip it open at any page and it will offer you new insights into Tolkien’s vast creative genius. And in addition to this, to have three formats (paperback, hardback and collectors’ edition) as well as the accompanying Tolkien: Treasures really offers everyone the opportunity to buy a book documenting this world-class presentation.
One of the biggest challenges as a Tolkien activist which I have faced for almost three decades now is to explain to people who do not know much about Tolkien that there is so much more to him than just the three books everyone knows. There are levels of creative depths which made his writings possible and without which he would not have become the renowned author he now is. With this book I will now be better able not only to explain with words what an outstanding life this man has led but I can now show to anyone interested how it looked like.
A must-have for any Tolkien fan, the world over.