While Van Pelt Library contains a diverse collection of archives, a new exhibit at the library aims to present these texts through an artistic and cultural viewpoint.
"Manuscriptistan" is a series of photographs of Indian manuscripts taken by Anthony Cerulli, a professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The exhibit aims to present the aesthetic features of manuscripts and the stories of those who maintain them — rather than the content alone — to show the human element that was lost when India digitized its archives, exhibit coordinator Lynn Ransom said.
Ransom, curator of programs at Penn’s Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, said the exhibit is an interesting take on how manuscripts are conventionally showcased, describing it as an “art exhibit with a contemporary view on historical collections."
The photographs themselves showcase manuscripts from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Kerala that were taken by Cerulli since 2003, according to the exhibit website. Beyond photographs of manuscripts, the exhibit includes ethnographic accounts of cataloguers, professors, graduate students, maintenance staff, and other people who work with manuscripts.
Ransom said Penn currently holds the largest collection of Indic manuscripts in North America and has a strong research program in South Asian culture. She said these features led Cerulli to approach the Schoenberg Institute and ask to share his photographs, which ultimately led to the development of "Manuscriptistan." Ransom said it took about a year to develop the exhibit.
“Cerulli came to us because we were an institute for manuscript studies, and we look at how pre-modern cultures use manuscripts in different ways and reflect the needs of society," Ransom said. "He was looking for a space where he could share the photographs he took as a researcher."
South Asian Studies Librarian Jef Pierce, whose work aligns closely with Cerulli’s work in North India, has promoted the exhibit within the Penn academic community. Cerulli plans to visit Penn on Nov. 5, and Pierce has organized a panel discussion for that day with different faculty members from related disciplines.
Pierce said the exhibit is significant because its photographs highlight the uniqueness of Indian manuscript culture, which involves very different organizational techniques than in North America.
“What’s really striking, especially coming from a U.S. academic library context, [are] the drastic differences in the way things are organized," Pierce said. "In my own experience, when manuscripts come through in photographs, the organization scheme and logic can be specific to each archive,” Pierce said.
“Going to a Sanskrit manuscript archive, the manuscript is not listed in a particular order," he added. "The people who work in archives know the logic, and it's about navigating the different cultures.”
Ransom said she hopes people will leave the exhibit with an increased appreciation for the value of manuscripts and manuscript culture in understanding society.
“We hope that people will come away with a sense of these archives as living embodiments of shared cultural heritage and that manuscripts are artifacts of the past,” she said.
Pierce added that the photographs demonstrate the importance of manuscripts and their preservation.
“In the climate of South Asia, it is imperative to preserve these materials through digitization or physical preservations," Pierce said. "Cerulli underscored the knowledge that is held within the manuscripts and its importance for preservation.”
The exhibit will run from Sept. 9 to Dec. 13 and is located in Kamin Gallery on the first floor of Van Pelt Library.