By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian
The Library sometimes loans materials from its collections to other museums and libraries for display in their exhibitions. A letter that convicted murderer William Burke (1792–1829) wrote on the eve of his execution is currently on display in the exhibit “Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life,” which opened July 1 at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Known as the “Resurrection Men,” Burke and his accomplice, William Hare, murdered some sixteen people and sold their bodies to Dr. Robert Knox (1791–1862) for dissection in his Edinburgh anatomy classes. The exhibition examines the circumstances that gave rise to the Burke and Hare murders in 1828 and considers the social and medical history of the dissection of human bodies from Leonardo da Vinci to the present.
Loans require a lot of advance preparation. Arrangements often take a year or more. Our conservator starts by evaluating the item to see if it needs conservation or special handling before we approve anything for loan. She also documents its condition, noting any existing issues or repairs, and in the case of the Burke letter, at the request of the National Museums Scotland, she was asked to hinge the letter to a piece of mount board in advance.
We also ask the borrowing institution to provide a facilities report, a form developed by the American Association of Museums to document the environmental conditions in the exhibition space: temperature, relative humidity, light levels, and security. We consider how long an exhibition will be up; for our contributions to the ongoing exhibit “Activist New York” at the Museum of the City of New York, for example, we rotate the items that are on display. Fine art handlers usually pack the items and bring them to the borrowing institution.
The National Museums Scotland first contacted us about a potential loan of the Burke letter in November 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down considerably, delaying the opening of their exhibit by a full year. This loan was particularly complex, because the item is unique and because international loans require extra documentation. Burke’s letter, in his own hand and over his signature, was written on the eve of his execution. In the letter, he admitted to committing sixteen murders with Hare but disavowed various additional murders and thefts that people attributed to him. We had to determine an appropriate insurance value, document the letter’s provenance to demonstrate that the Library is its rightful owner, and arrange for the letter to be safely transported to Edinburgh. Everything is specified in the loan documents, which both institutions sign. On June 7, under the watchful eye of our conservator, art handlers packed the letter in a specially constructed crate and took it to the airport for a flight to London, where it arrived on June 9. There it joined other items intended for the exhibit, and all of them travelled to Edinburgh together, arriving on June 21. The letter was placed in its exhibit case in time for an invitation-only viewing on June 30; the exhibit opened to the public on July 1 and will be up through October 30. Then the steps will run in reverse: a conservator at the National Museums will document the condition of the letter before it is packed in its specially constructed crate again, and once it gets back to our building our conservator will inspect it to verify that no damage has occurred. At that point the letter will return to the collections.
We are very committed to loaning items from the Library to other institutions because we are aware that our materials add so much to any viewer’s experience. One item we don’t readily lend, however, is the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This 3,600-year-old hieratic text is the oldest known surgical treatise. In 2005, it was the centerpiece of “The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just down Fifth Avenue. But that was the last time the actual papyrus was loaned. We regularly receive requests to borrow individual leaves of the papyrus, but it is too fragile and the risks are too great for it to travel, especially overseas. So this year, when the papyrus is being featured in three European exhibitions, one in Bonn, a second in Barcelona and Madrid, and a third in Milan, beautifully made facsimile leaves, created from our own high-resolution images, make it possible for the papyrus to be shared with many audiences.
The Library contains many treasures but not everyone can come see them in person. We are happy to loan our unique, surprising, significant, and beautiful books and manuscripts to other museums and libraries, and to be part of their exhibitions—in physical form if we can, and in digital form if we must.