Opening the “numinous” book: Exploring the “reading experience” and “bookish emotions” as curatorial and engagement tools in book exhibitions.
- Dr Kostas Arvanitis, Institute for Cultural Practices
- Dr Fred Schurink, English and American Studies
Overview of PhD
My thesis aims to build a new framework for the study of book exhibitions grounded in a close examination of the material and affective capabilities of books, and in a better understanding of the visitor’s exhibition experience. Distinctively, my research draws on ontological principles from neo-materialist thought and Actor-Network theory to offer a post-humanist view of exhibitions where both books and people as well as their interactions share the centre of analysis. In addition to visitor studies and museum-based research on object interpretation, emotions, and experience, I bring to the discussion a distinct conception of the book as an assemblage of material, symbolic, and social dimensions with the power to shape exhibition experiences. In this sense, my research is concerned both with the study of the agency of the book as an originator and a recipient of emotions (that is, with its agency as a “numinous object”) and with the role of these emotions in creating “affective communities”. (In other words, I am interested in exploring the agency of the book as a sociological object and as an “identity maker”, and its potential in formulating a new type of exhibition experience.)
To articulate these ideas, I borrow some of the concepts and terminology that literature scholars, book artists and cultural sociologist have employed to allude to the very private and abstract connections that might be established between people and books. These are concepts like “bookishness”, “book presence” and “book love”. Broadly speaking, these terms refer to the emotional bonds that might be created through the act of reading and “the reading experience”. More importantly, they aim to capture the emotional significations and valences that the book as an object has acquired against the background of the digital, and that, in my view, may play a significant role in the context of exhibitions.
With this premise in mind, my research seeks to ascertain whether the desire to build on the emotional connections established with books through and beyond reading experiences may act, for some, as the motivational pull that brings them to the exhibition. Likewise, I want to elucidate whether the existence of these bonds may be strong enough to create opportunities for emotion and experience regardless of the type of book on display; how this relates to the concept of the “reading experience” and the idea of the book as a “numinous object”; and if and how these book-grounded emotional experiences might be supported and enhanced through exhibition design and interpretation.
In summary, my research aims to:
- zoom in on the material qualities of the exhibited book that may contribute to processes of meaning-making in the visitor-object encounter
- investigate the curatorial possibilities that might open up as a result of attending to both the agentic nature of books as “numinous” objects, and an extended definition of “the reading experience” that includes the emotional values ascribed to books in our culture at private and public level
- understand the role that books and reading-related emotions may play in the visitor experience before, during and after the visit
- gain a better understanding of the place of book exhibition visiting in contemporary book culture
I am an Art Historian by the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a graduate of the University of Manchester’s MA in Art Gallery and Museum studies. I have wide experience in the field of museology, with an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, and a post as an Exhibition Coordinator at the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo de Malaga, Spain; I’ve volunteered for the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art and worked as a Visitor Services Assistant & Gallery guide at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, where I am originally from.
My master’s dissertation explored the role that art galleries can play in the development of a young person’s personality, and all throughout my career, I have been drawn to issues of interpretation, education and audience development in cultural institutions. During the past 17 years, I have gained considerable experience developing outreach programmes for young people in partnership with community groups and creative practitioners using the skills and experience brought over from my academic training in engagement with the arts. I am also passionate about books and literature and an important part of my working career has revolved around the field of reader development in public and school libraries, where I have managed and implemented literary events such as author’s visits, reading groups, literary awards, book fairs and book promotions, creative writing sessions and online courses. I’m also a published children’s book author, both in the UK and Spain; a trained Arts Award Adviser (Discovery and Explore level) and have collaborated in literary projects with the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and with the Spanish organization dedicated to the promotion of YA literature “Atrapavientos”.
In addition, I’ve carried out a course on Rare Book Librarianship by Aberystwyth University and have led an Arts Council funded project digitising and promoting Chetham’s Library collections of broadside ballads from the 17th to the 19th century. On top of creating digital surrogates and providing cataloguing data to MARC standards, the role included curating a small exhibition of relevant material and managing a series of creative activities and workshops based on their early modern collections. Presently, I’m employed by the University of Manchester Main Library as part of the Content, Collections and Discovery Team as a Shelving and Stock Management Supervisor (P/T). I see this PhD as a fitting combination of the two strands of my career so far, and I am grateful to the ICP for awarding me a scholarship to carry out this research.