If you’ve spent time on the second floor of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre this month, no doubt you’ve noticed Ever Austen: Literary Timelessness in the Regency Period, an exhibition that honours Austen and illuminates the social and material history of her works in the context of the Regency era. The exhibition was curated by UBC undergraduate students from the Faculty of Arts Kathryn Ney, Karen Ng, and Karol Pasciano under the guidance of Librarian Chelsea Shriver from Rare Books and Special Collections and was funded by an AURA grant. We sat down with Kathryn, Karen, and Karol to learn more about their experience as first-time curators.
Why Jane Austen?
Karol: Jane Austen has been on my list of favourite authors for a long time. I started reading her works and watching adaptations of her novels when I was around 14 years old. I remember being fascinated by her characters and the Regency period – indeed, I still am! – often attempting to emulate her voice in my own short stories. Given how this year marks the 200th anniversary of her passing, we wanted to create this exhibit as a means to not only celebrate her legacy, but also to introduce new fans to the delights of her works.
Kathryn: When Karen, Karol, and I were finally arranging the displays on January 3, after weeks of preparation, I looked at our work and had a sudden feeling of inevitability; Jane Austen has been a part of my life for a long time, and a younger me would have been incredibly proud to be part of a project like this. I’m sure that any of my old Facebook friends from high school who have seen the poster are shaking their heads and thinking, “Of course, of course she’s doing an exhibit on Jane Austen.” Austen’s astute depictions of human nature, her canny wit, and her sensitivity to the wiles, weaknesses, jealousies and yearnings that each of us experience in life make her novels truly timeless.
Karen: Rare Books and Special Collections recently acquired first editions of some of Austen’s novels, there was an opening in the exhibition space on level 2 of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, and I like old and special books, so this has been an interesting learning opportunity.
How did the three of you come to work on this project?
Kathryn: I met Karol outside an Honours seminar, on the first day. It turned out that we both liked old stuff. We both liked talking about old stuff. It was a good start. I suppose it’s appropriate that we got to know one another better during a class on Arthurian legends.
I heard that Karol received the 2015 JASNA Essay Award and offered my congratulations; she mentioned that she had been asked to do an exhibit in honour of the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death, and needed an extra pair of hands (or two). I was thrilled to be asked to join the team, and I am so glad that I have had the opportunity to work with both Karen and Karol on this project.
Karol: I’ve received an email from Chelsea Shriver, who is a librarian in RBSC, last summer, telling me that they were planning to acquire first editions of Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Chelsea had heard about my JASNA scholarship from a professor in the English department, so she asked me if I would be interested in curating an exhibit for RBSC. Naturally, I said that I’d be delighted to do so. Since I knew that both Kathryn and Karen are also fans of Austen – and of rare books! – I’ve invited them to join me on this project.
Karen: I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to work in Rare Books and Special Collections during the summer of 2016, so I was aware of the first editions. I had met Karol through a seminar on manuscripts the previous term – we’re both fans of old things and RBSC – and I knew she’d been given the opportunity to curate an exhibit following her JASNA award. She had big ideas for the project, so I offered to help.
How did you select the pieces displayed in the exhibit?
Karen: The goal of the exhibit was to showcase Jane Austen and Austen-related material from UBC Library, specifically Rare Books and Special Collections. I went through the entire Rare Books catalogue looking for Austen and regency period materials, plugged it into a spreadsheet, and from there we chose beautiful, curious, and unique items that we thought might interest the UBC community.
Kathryn: Selecting the pieces for the exhibit involved multiple visits to RBSC, with many “ooohs” and “aaahs” over items we had never seen before, Karen’s meticulous list of Austen-related materials at RBSC, as well as Chelsea Shriver’s expertise (and patience). I also felt that we couldn’t do a display on the Regency period without some dresses, possibly some undergarments; thanks to the generous support of Mr. Ivan Sayers and the Society for the Museum of Original Costume, we were able to include both (as well as fashion plates from his personal collection).
Karol: There was quite a lot of planning involved in the thematic selection of the cases. We wanted to make the exhibit exciting for everyone, not just English majors, so we tried to select items that would be not only visually appealing, but also informative about the period, things that everyone could engage with and that would motivate one to want to find out more about Austen’s works. While we were planning, we also considered which items would best illustrate the theme of each case.
Has this experience influenced the direction of your career or specialization of your work?
Karol: Most definitely! While working on this project, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the process of curating an exhibit, from the selection of materials, to the research phase, to the making of labels and book supports, this experience has been absolutely invaluable! It has particularly led me to think about aspects of readership on a different level, as we had to be really mindful of diverse types of audiences in the writing of the materials for each case. These considerations are of vital importance in academia, so I can certainly say that this experience has given me new perspectives on how to present information to large audiences.
Karen: I particularly enjoyed the collaboration with the RBSC staff, and it was interesting getting to know some of the work that Library Communications does. The most exciting part for me was handling the books and working with Anne Lama, the conservator. We got to learn how best to take care of the books and help build some of the supports. I found this attention to the physicality and presentation of Austen’s books to be amazing. I hope to pursue librarianship one day, so it was a privilege getting to work with UBC’s librarians. Hopefully one day they’ll teach me their secret handshake.
Kathryn: I discovered that noodles are a great tool for making book end covers. Don’t ask, and don’t tell Anne. I learned that Library and Conservation work requires a huge range of skills and involves a great level of creativity, and ingenuity – you’d be amazed how much math goes into making book supports! I also really enjoyed working with the RBSC staff and having the time to work with the collection. I am not sure whether this project has influenced the direction of my career; it did however reinforce my passion for research, presenting, and sharing literary and historical marvels with the public. I hope to pursue a career in education, but have also considered work in the culture and heritage industry, including exhibit design and public programming.
Do you have a favourite Jane Austen book?
Karen: No, not really…that’s a boring answer. I really like the Limited Editions Club books we have on display though.
Karol: That’s a tough question! As most Austen fans, I love Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I have to admit, though, that neither of the two is actually my favourite one. That title goes instead to Mansfield Park. I’ve always identified with Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, as we’re both shy and love reading.
Kathryn: It depends on the day. If I need a second chance, I need Anne Elliot from Persuasion. If I’ve been stupid or childish, or been spending too much time with relatives, it’s Emma. If I need to be stronger than I think I am, it’s Elinor from Sense and Sensibility. If I need a friend, it’s Fanny Price. If I need to remind myself that there is such a thing as too much Austen, I read (and partly recite, by heart) the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice. Each one of these novels are so dear, I have to agree with Karol, it’s really hard to chose just one!
Do you have a favourite film/tv adaptation?
Karol: Despite its issues, I really liked the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley. I simply love its soundtrack, and the film’s photography is just lovely. I’m also a big fan of Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility (she even wrote the the screenplay for it!). Her and Kate Winslet’s portrayals of Elinor and Marianne, respectively, are exactly as I picture them in the book.
Karen: I’ve only seen the Keira Knightley adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I agree with Karol – the soundtrack and cinematography is beautiful; it’s just nice to look at.
I’m particularly fond of Bernie Su and Hank Green’s 2013 adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It was imagined as a modern day web series where Elizabeth Bennet is a Mass Communications graduate student. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t anything I’d seen before as an adaptation of anything. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was creative and interactive, and I’m grateful that it exists.
Kathryn: I also like the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. Not only was it the first Austen adaptation I had seen, but I love Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet – and not just because Brenda squeals significantly less than Alison Steadman in the 1995 version. There is a tenderness and warmth about the Bennet family which I feel is lacking in earlier versions. I also listen to Dario Marianelli’s film score on loop, from time to time; I even own the sheet music!
Thanks to Karol, Karen and Kathryn for sharing their experiences. Don’t forget to join us for the Jane Austen panel discussion on February 3, 2017.