National heritage: mobility and exchange

I spent a very enjoyable and informative day last Friday in Cambridge at the inaugural workshop, co-ordinated by Abigail Brundin, of the ‘Translating Cultures’ network on ‘National Trust libraries: an untapped resource. A pilot study of Italian holdings at Belton House, Lincolnshire’. Around 150 of the properties for which the National Trust has responsibility in the United Kingdom contain collections of books, a number of which have been in situ in the house libraries for several centuries or more. Some of these collections are of great national significance, and it is clear that their contents represent an invaluable resource for those interested in the history of private book collecting and ownership in the United Kingdom. Although little research has been conducted on the majority of these libraries, the project of cataloguing them, under the inspirational leadership of the Trust’s Libraries Curator Mark Purcell, is now underway, and the results are being made available to readers and researchers via Copac. The network project is centred around a pilot study, focusing on the collection at Belton House in Lincolnshire, where the Trust has its second largest library (with over 11,000 titles). This collection – the largest to be catalogued in its entirety by the Trust to date – is extremely varied, but contains significant numbers of early continental books acquired by members of the Brownlow family during the Grand Tour. It is this material that will form the basis of an exhibition, ‘The Brownlows: Books and Continental Travel’, running from March to November. The workshop was devoted to questions of mobility and exchange in Great House collections, and it opened with a fascinating session on the migration of books and ideas, including a paper by Guyda Armstrong on questions of translation revealed in the Chatsworth Boccaccio, and presentations by John Gallagher and Dunstan Roberts on the place of language learning, book buying and reading in the culture of the Grand Tour. What emerged was a complex picture of printed books as objects in motion that travel in their own right, physically in their owner’s baggage or through translation – and in the process permitting language learning, acting as mementos of the journey, representing the traveller’s acquired knowledge, and ultimately serving as a reminder that ‘national’ heritage is itself the product of processes of intercultural mobility and translingual exchange. A concluding panel on private libraries as cultural history provided an opportunity to address questions of collaboration between academics and those in other sectors. It highlighted the very real challenges of working together in this way, but also underlined the genuine benefits of seeking innovative ways to ‘translate’ the outcomes of research in non-academic venues and to non-specialist audiences. An excellent illustration of the potential of ‘translating cultures’ to allow us to think, research and communicate in new ways. The exhibition at Belton House opens on 2 March 2013.


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