Exhibitions and Outreach

Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre in St Cross Church in Oxford city centre is periodically open for public exhibitions and talks, which are advertised on the events page. (For online exhibitions, see Printed Special Collections and Archives and Manuscripts.) We also welcome visits from school parties.

Exhibitions and talks

Current and upcoming exhibitions

imageA Load of Old Babel: the languages and scripts of Balliol College

Armenian, Welsh, Pali, Aleut, Ge’ez, Hebrew, Latin, French, Arabic: Balliol’s autumn 2022 exhibition explores the languages and scripts in Balliol’s Historic Collections. From translation into the vernacular and the search for a universal language to the obfuscations of cryptography and criminal cant, discover the intricacies of language use throughout history. 

Opens 10 and 11 September 2022, 11.00am-4.00pm for Oxford Open Doors. Further dates to be announced.


Unlocking Archives talks

Unlocking Archives is a series of lunchtime talks about current research in Balliol College’s special collections. All are welcome and are invited to feel free to bring lunch. The talks last about half an hour, to allow time for questions and a closer look at some of the collections discussed. There are details of previous talks on the events archive page; below are a few examples. Forthcoming talks are advertised on the events page.

Previous exhibitions and talks available:

  • Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Visit our Historic Collections blog to download the exhibition catalogue. The 50-minute video below, produced to coincide with the exhibition and to serve as a discussion tool for the associated teachers’ project, narrates the story of the transatlantic slave trade through interviews with the exhibition’s co-curators alongside some of the exhibits. The film also includes interviews with the Master and a member of Balliol’s Black and Minority Ethnic Society about what the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and the racial injustices associated with it mean for members of the College today. The exhibition and film are part of the ongoing Balliol and Empire project.

School visits

Balliol’s historic collections of over 750 years of books and manuscripts are so wide ranging that they can transport a group to almost any time and place. Students at all levels can view the present through the complexities of the past, honing their critical skills as they interpret the sources. The collections could potentially inspire a range of curriculum subjects including History, English, Art, Geography, Design and Technology, and Computing. Teachers interested in using Balliol’s collections to support the curriculum and inspire their students are encouraged to contact the Library to find out more.

Here are some ideas …

imageJudging a Book by Its Cover

(Art, Design and Technology, English, History) [50 minutes]

The look of books has changed over time. This group activity explores the covers (bindings) of early printed books: the different materials that were used in book production; how individual bindings relate to the choices of individual owners; the differences between then and now. Covers have always protected books but their other functions have changed with the arrival of mass production and marketing. So can you really judge a book by its cover?

‘I liked finding out new materials’
‘I liked the patterns around the building’
‘I liked guessing the Latin words like angelica’
‘I liked the layout of the books 500 years ago
Falconbrook Primary School Book Club, 2013

‘I could hear some of the children saying that they want to come to Oxford, and as they left a couple said to look out for their applications! It’s a great testament to how much your workshop caught their imaginations.
Jane Lewis, Schools Liaison and Access Officer, University College Oxford, 2014

imageBalliol Boys’ Club: Town and Gown in the First World War

(History) [45 minutes]

Archival research is detective work. Use your detective skills to track down the sources hidden around St Cross Church and uncover the history the Balliol Boys’ Club.

This activity could form the basis of a local history study on this early 20th-century ‘working boy’s club’ run by students at Balliol College for the children of the Parish of St Ebbes in Oxford. It could include communication between the front line and the home front during the First World War and the historic social tensions between town and gown in Oxford.

imageChurch and State 1509-1745: Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Britain

(History) [60 minutes]

From the Vulgate Bible to the Book of Common Prayer, use Balliol’s rich collection of books printed in the Reformation period to travel back in time and explore two centuries of religious and social changes in Britain and beyond.

imageCuriosities: Real and Imaginary Beasts

(History, Art, English, Geography) [50 minutes]

Gaspar Schott lived in Germany in the 1600s. He wanted to write a book about animals that would seem unusual to people in Europe, but he had never been outside  Europe himself.  How did he find out about these animals? How could he tell if what he heard was true? Students use early maps to discover some curious beasts for themselves, and decide whether the report they send back to Schott is real, imaginary, or somewhere in between.

‘I found this place like a myth library very interesting and unknown’
‘I really liked the spooky bits example when we went behind the bookshelf

Year 8 student explorers from various schools

imageFrom Manuscript to Mass Production: The History of the Book in Europe

(History, Art, Design and Technology) [60 minutes]

Six books, 600 years of development: from the handwritten book through the development of the printing press to mass production in the machine press era. This ‘show and discuss’ session uses treasures from the collections to examine changes in materials and processes, and their wider social implications, in the production of a simple yet socially significant technology: the book.

‘The students were unanimously enthusiastic about the session, and really valued the opportunity to see examples of six centuries of books laid out in this fashion. They really liked the way that they were introduced to the various books and the technological processes in their production. They particularly valued the fact that they were given the opportunity to handle the books. Asked if anything should be different next year, their only suggestion was that the session was a bit longer.
Dr Caroline Davis, Senior Lecturer, Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies

Iconic Shakespeare, Forgotten Jonsonimage

(English Literature, History, Art, Design and Technology) [60 minutes]

Everyone’s heard of William Shakespeare but his friendly, dramatic rival, Ben Jonson is less well known. Discuss why with a hands on comparison of three early modern title pages: the complete works of Ben Jonson, and King James I, both published in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, and Shakespeare’s second folio (1632). Learn to interpret images like a seventeenth-century consumer and interrogate them like a twenty-first century historian. 

imageCurator for an Hour

(History, English, Art, Design and Technology, Computing) [60 minutes]

The challenge: to plan a display featuring five of Balliol’s special collections items … in just one hour. It could be a ‘live’ exhibition (real objects in cases, in a building), or a virtual exhibition (digital images of real objects, on a website). Students will use cross-disciplinary skills, learning to interrogate sources, communicate ideas, and use design effectively. Without curators, objects from the past might never get the chance to tell their stories, and lots of historical evidence would be lost.

imageA Session to Suit

Our collections are full of treasures, so if you would like to use them to enhance a topic you are teaching please get in touch.