Week two of the residency at Chetham’s Library and we’ve seen plenty of bizarre objects and books. It’s been so much fun to explore the collection and also to spend time in the library whilst visitors a looking around, picking up on comments during tours and bric-a-brac conversation about the building.
One of the most fund things is hearing tour guides and visitors claim with incredible confidence that one object is different things at different times. I’ve also noticed the great skill at which a tour guide is able to offer an answer that doesn’t really answer the question directly but which is overflowing with so much detail about something else that it either satisfies the visitor or just confuses them into nodding.
[The following is only an example and is not verbatim]
“So what does that chicken up there represent?”
“The chicken will be an original feature of this carved wall, produced when the building first opened. The pillars are masonic symbols, although we’re not sure if Humphrey Chetham had a connection with the masons, and the pelican is a representation of Christ due to a popular misunderstanding. You see, it was thought that Pelicans would feed their young by pecking their own chests until they bled and feeding their young that way — it was seen as a similar self sacrifice as that of Jesus Christ. And right in the centre there you can see the painting of Humphrey Chetham.”
This same chicken has been presented as a symbol of hard-work, a symbol of the god Mercury and also simply a way of balancing out the pelican that sits opposite him on the carving.
It’s a skill, really. Pretty much political spin but with the sole aim to maintain the authority of the tour guide. Except, this is such a low-stakes spin that people aren’t all that up for challenging it. Also, if you want the full experience of a tour, that partly relies on giving way to the idea that the guide knows more than you — if you break that relationship maybe you ruin the whole tour, and you’re invested in that experience by taking the time to take the tour.
However, the tour guides certainly aren’t frauds and definitely hold a lot of knowledge. in their heads. The tour guides have been an incredible source of information and content for the performance next month. I’m sure the majority of what they say has been researched but it’s this bits of misinformation slowly gets rolled up with the truth that we’re interested in, so this is what we’ve been focussed on.
What’s also been so great in the two weeks that we’ve been here is the enthusiasm of all of the staff. Jane, Fegus, Jess, Michael and Sue have all been really supporting in forthcoming with their knowledge of the library and it’s objects. Michael in particular has been really great – always coming in to the Reading Room, where we spend most of our time, with new books and objects to explore.
It’s been such a great thing to have the time to really immerse ourselves into the history and collection of a building like this and also to spend the amount of time that we have here to catch the tone and atmosphere of the building during its day-to-day.