The Life of Objects @ John Ryland’s Library


Walt Whitman’s Flowers. Photo Credit: The University of Manchester Library

The John Ryland’s Library has always been a place of mystery. The ashened red stone building sits undisturbed amongst the more modern, brightly built Deansgate in the centre of Manchester. Its gloomy gothic architecture has a presence unlike any other and is a favourite spot for the more peculiar and intriguing exhibitions that you’ll find in our city.

The Life of Objects—which has been on display at the library since March and continues to be until the 27th August this year—captures this same feeling. Objects that were specifically chosen to tell stories: ones of friendship, of childhood and unrequited love. Just like a book you’d find in the historic reading room, dusty with yellowed pages, these objects—a button, a pair of baby’s shoes or a small beaded bag—seem ordinary enough at first, but the stories they tell show us that life weaves complex webs of connections, proving that the ordinary can in fact be quite extraordinary.

The curator of the exhibit has gathered mementos from the lives of famous literary and artistic figures who in some way or another—be that personal life, or the lives of those they touched with their work—are related to the North West of England. In this exhibit you will find a button owned by Walt Whitman, the nineteenth century American poet and journalist. Though the button while in the poet’s possession may just have been a throw away item, what it symbolises for The Bolton Whitman Fellowship was far more. The Fellowship were a group of like-minded men from Eagle Street College who were dedicated in studying the life and works of Whitman. They treasured the button because of its owner and here the exhibit asks us to think about our own lives and how we treasure material possessions because of their history, their nostalgia and that sort of misplaced fuzzy feeling they give us.

My favourite collection however were the objects shared between two friends, Dom Sylvester Houédard (dsh) and Li Yuan-chia. The pair were both part of the 1960s vibrant London art scene, and the collaboration of poetry and art between the two, which now fittingly share a home under the same glass dome in the library, tell the story of their friendship. This delicate and intimate observation of the relationship between the men reminds me of ‘The Museum of Broken Relationships’, a gallery in Croatia that displays artefacts donated by the public along with a story of the broken relationship they represent. The Life of Objects asks us to think about our own lives and relationships while we navigate the exhibition, reflecting on our own connections with possessions that, in a world where we are constantly told “millennials” are materialistic and shallow, provide a warmth of historical contingency to “things” in the face of such criticism.

With personal touches of visitors to the library’s own experiences with their belongings written on hanging cards at the end of the exhibit, this collection proves heart-warming and personal, teaching us to look beyond economic value and into what really matters, and will continue to matter to us forever.