It’s a horse, of course! Expanding Your Research Output by Curating an Exhibition

by Jill Crawley-Low
Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

While working in University Archives & Special Collections at the University of Saskatchewan and being exposed daily to a wealth of published and unpublished materials from diverse subject areas, I felt challenged to volunteer to curate a display for the library’s exhibition program. At the University of Saskatchewan, curation is a form of artistic research which is reportable on faculty CVs. This was an opportunity to try out a new form of research while combining a professional interest in library collections with my personal passion for horses. The result was an exhibit called It’s a horse, of course! celebrating the enduring bond between humans and horses through the collections of the University Library shown from August – October, 2015.

Academic libraries typically use exhibitions and displays to showcase their collections to the campus community and outreach to the larger community. At the U of S, the exhibition program serves this purpose and also creates opportunities for librarians to link their professional practice to the subject of an exhibit. To support this form of research on behalf of librarians, the University Library has a purpose-built exhibition space in a high traffic area in a busy branch. Materials in a variety of formats are selected from general and archival collections. While displays of print materials are fleeting, published supporting materials such as exhibition catalogues and digital projects provide a long-term record. The Exhibitions Committee is chaired by the Special Collections Librarian and technical support for guest curators is provided by employees from the University Archives & Special Collections unit. The Committee’s terms of reference include periodic calls of interest to potential guest curators to participate in the exhibits calendar.

In curating exhibits, a useful rule of thumb is “less is often more.” A narrow topic with carefully selected items allows a focussed story to unfold, which may appeal to a wider audience than a broader topic. The collection itself determines the scope of the exhibit unless additional materials are borrowed and displayed. Although the curator determines the overarching theme of the exhibit, it is in the process of carefully selecting items that context and linkages among items appear and begin to shape the storyline. Being open to these possibilities increases the creativity and effectiveness of the exhibit.

At some point during the curation process I discovered that parts of the exhibit were evolving spontaneously; this may be analogous to collecting data using other research methodologies and following where the data lead. Two display cases organized themselves, one with materials about the heavy horse industry in Saskatchewan and the second to showcase horse breeds in general.

It is well known on campus that the university has several animal herds on a variety of farm sites for research and teaching. In the past, heavy horses in particular routinely worked on the university campus farm. While browsing the archival fonds from the College of Agriculture for materials relating to heavy horses, I came across the story of a young stallion whose history eclipsed all other potential stories. The story of Bonnie Fyvie emerged through a series of letters written and exchanged by parties interested in reinvigorating the heavy horse industry in Saskatchewan. The correspondents included William Rutherford, the first dean of Agriculture; Walter Murray, the first president of the university; representatives of the Saskatchewan government and horse breeders in the province; and the American Clydesdale Association.

Bonnie Fyvie was a two-year old purchased with government funds from an established Scottish Clydesdale stud farm to reside at the U of S. He had the potential to create a herd of prize-winning Clydesdales at the U of S and to offer stud services to approved mares within the province. Disaster struck when Bonnie Fyvie developed a neurological condition called stringhalt that precluded all but limited breeding. Bonnie Fyvie’s story played out in letters that ranged from hopeful optimism to sadness and finally acceptance. Although he would not sire generations of Clydesdales in Saskatchewan, the university purchased a ready-made Clydesdale herd from an American businessman, and some of those horses went on to win prizes at agricultural fairs on behalf of the university and province.

The other case that organized itself focussed on the topic of horse breeding. Preserved in the pages of a personal diary from the collection, the story was told from the perspective of two Victorian adventurers. The author, Lady Anne Blunt, was an aristocrat who travelled with her husband, Wilfrid, four times to the Middle East to negotiate with Arabian horse breeders. This was an age when the world that was safe and acceptable for tourist travel was relatively small. It did not include the deserts of Arabia where the Blunts travelled to meet Bedouin tribesmen and sheiks who bred Arabian stock. The Blunts used their knowledge of horse confirmation and breeding to select only the finest specimens of the Arabian breed, which they shipped back to their stud farm in Sussex, England. Lady Anne’s careful recordkeeping and the preservation of her story in the published diary means that 90% of all purebred Arabians alive today trace their lineage back to the horses that the Blunts exported from Arabia to England. I found this to be a more personal and interesting depiction of a horse breed than a case full of images of breeds.

I would heartily recommend a stint as a guest curator in order to experience a new form of research and the creative and, often, unpredictable result. Curation as a form of artistic research is an occasion for librarians to apply their subject knowledge and professional practice to develop an exhibit that reflects and promotes the library’s varied collections. Developing an exhibit is an opportunity to unearth the “hidden” treasures in the collections and a way to educate audiences about the more practical functions of preservation and accessibility in libraries.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.