By Oliver Mitchell (CHASE funded, The Courtuald Institute of Art)
In the Spring of 2018, I spent three months on a CHASE-sponsored placement at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Taking a term away from my own doctoral research at the Courtauld Institute of Art, I lived in Philadelphia and worked as a graduate student intern on the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis (‘BiblioPhilly’) manuscript digitisation project. My own research focusses on medieval manuscripts, but the scope of this project offered new and exciting opportunities for me to engage with a much broader range of materials than I am used to in my day-to-day studies.
Working mostly from original artefacts but also occasionally from digital surrogates, I would create page-level metadata, collect bibliographic information, and write catalogue entry-style descriptions of medieval manuscripts to be published online when BiblioPhilly goes live later this year. It was daunting at first to be part of such a highly specialised team working on an internationally important research project, but a combination of expert supervision by Schoenberg Curator of Manuscripts Dr Nicholas Herman and previous training opportunities facilitated by CHASE enabled me to start working independently and effectively soon after I arrived.
All in all, I catalogued around forty manuscripts from the collections of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Lehigh University, and Bryn Mawr College. Late-medieval devotional texts made in north-western Europe featured prominently in the books I worked on, but as a whole the material ranged across Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. Particular highlights included the fifteenth-century Browne Hours (Free Library of Philadelphia MS Widener 3), with its original medieval binding incorporating unusual gilded clasps with miniatures on vellum under rock crystal windows and the names of its original owners – John and Agnes Browne. The principal interest of many of the manuscripts I worked with was not art historical, but researching and writing about these books encouraged me to develop my palaeographical and codicological skills as well as tools of formal and visual analysis. I feel I responded well to these challenges, and that I made a positive contribution to BiblioPhilly and to Schoenberg during my time there.
Outside my day job cataloguing manuscripts, I was able to sit in on an undergraduate course taught by my placement supervisor, which offered valuable insight into university-level teaching in a US institution. The Schoenberg also hosted two conferences on medieval studies, which I wrote up for the Institute’s blog. Taking full advantage of being in the US, I made time to explore the rich collections of various Philadelphia museums, the Morgan Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Chicago Institute of Art.
Working in sustained proximity with a large volume of manuscript material, much of it outside the scope of my own research project, enabled me to develop new skills and knowledge which have already had a positive impact on my doctoral studies. Now I am returning rejuvenated to my own research project, inspired and motivated by my time in Philadelphia and ready to apply the lessons of my experience there to the next steps in my academic career.