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

Spring exhibition 2020

A Load of Old Babel: the Languages and Scripts of Balliol College

From Aleut to Welsh, a look at the languages in the Historic Collections of Balliol’s Library and Archives, on-line now via the Historic Collections blog.


Opening of a Ethiopian manuscript copy of the Prayers of the Virgin Mary in Ge'ez, with decorated border, Balliol manuscript 378

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.

Some previous exhibitions and talks

Dervorguilla & Daughters: 750 Years of Women at Balliol College (autumn 2019): Access the Dervorguilla & Daughters catalogue.

Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch: cataloguing and conserving a 17th century library (autumn 2018): see the catalogue.

Professor Lesley J. Higgins, Spelt from Hopkins’ Leaves: Considering Archival ‘Remains’: see a video of the talk and interview with Professor Higgins.

‘I suppose they thought I was dead’: Shakespeare at Balliol in five acts (spring 2016): see an Unlocking Archives talk about the exhibition.

‘Industrious but Eccentric’: Algernon Charles Swinburne at Balliol (autumn 2015): see the catalogue.

‘Given to me by Mr Greene’: The Cherry Record Collection of Josephine Reid’s Papers and Books Relating to Graham Greene (spring 2015): see the catalogue.

Graham Greene, a Personal View: Unlocking Archives talk given by Nicholas Dennys on 8 June 2015:

School visits

Balliol’s special 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 …

Judging a Book by its Cover

(Art, Design and Technology, English, History) [50 minutes]Image of the edges of the textblock of an 18th-century Dutch Pentateuch showing decorative gilding and gauffering, as well as two book-clasps

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

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

(History) [45 minutes]

Students looking at memorabilia relating to Balliol Boys Club from the College ArchiveArchival 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.

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

(History) [60 minutes]

Detail of a woodcut illustration from Foxe's Book of Martyrs showing the execution by fire of Thomas Cranmer, 16th centuryFrom 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.

Curiosities: Real and Imaginary Beasts

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

Engraving of a sloth from Gaspar Schott's Physica Curiosa, 1662. Balliol Library 30 c 333 2Gaspar 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

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

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

Publishing students from Oxford Brookes look at a medieval manuscriptSix 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 JonsonEngraved portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the College's 2nd Folio, 1632

(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. 

Curator for an Hour

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

Glass paste medallion showing Adam Smith in profile (white on a blue background) produced by James Tassie in 1787The 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.

A Session to Suit

Illuminated initial from a 13th century manuscript of Aristotle showing a hooded monk teaching two novices. Balliol manuscript 253Our collections are full of treasures, so if you would like to use them to enhance a topic you are teaching please get in touch.