Image: the Gifted exhibition at the Mitchell Library
It’s not the conventional idea of a road trip—travelling between five libraries and a book festival in a sturdy white transit van, ten fragile sculptures made of paper in their boxes carefully packed in the back. Between August and December the Gifted exhibition would visit six venues, involving 12 installations and pack-downs, any number of events and workshops, and miles and miles of winding Scottish roads. Sitting in the front of the van, I experienced every bump in the road on behalf of those beautifully and terrifyingly delicate paper sculptures, and felt a profound relief after every unpacking and set up…before doing it all over again.
The boxed sculptures in the van were accompanied by their ten hefty display plinths, by exhibition banners, books and print material, and other boxes containing various tool kits, paint for plinth touch-ups, handling gloves, spirit levels, and all the hundreds of other miniscule things you need to take an exhibition on the road. A conservator came too, checking the light levels and conditions at each venue were the best possible for their preservation. An entourage: it was hard not to see the quiet, anonymously gifted sculptures as tiny paper rock stars on tour.
First stop was Aberdeen Central Library. As we set up, staff from the library began to come in twos and threes to look, and it was clear the sculptures’ greatest fans were going to be some of the librarians who dedicatedly looked after them during each stop. Picking up the exhibition at the end of that first showing, I was amused to find the clear plinth tops marked where people had evidently pressed their noses to the Perspex surface to get as close as possible.
Dundee Central Library was a different set up; here the works were dispersed amongst the shelves in the lending area, so that you might round a corner and come upon the T-Rex, bursting from the covers of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World, or the Central Library’s Magnifying Glass sculpture while searching for detective fiction.
Wigtown Book Festival received the sculptures with characteristic exuberance. The Badge for a Poem event run by Peggy Hughes of Edinburgh UNESCO City Of Literature and myself involved many festival goers, each of whom shared a poem celebrating ‘books, words, libraries or ideas’ in exchange for a Gifted badge.
Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, where the exhibition was opened by Liz Lochead, saw crowds streaming. By now we were well practised at setting the exhibition up swiftly and fairly smoothly, but taking it down had become the hard part—people were still looking around the works as we arrived to pack them up, and the librarians said slightly wistfully they thought they would come and see it at the next venue too, having grown strangely attached to the miniature paper works.
Now nearing the final leg of the tour, I look back on this road trip and see the series of exhibitions as chapters in the story of the Gifted book sculptures. The works have been the central characters in a story involving countless others, each visitor representing their support for what libraries and publically accessible cultural institutions do. They’ve shown us again and again the power of a good story (and good looks!), and the impact of a small-scale gesture of huge generosity.
Abby Cunnane, Gifted project manager
Saturday November 24 until Saturday 8 December
Scottish Poetry Library