Title page of Balliol Library's Second Folio by William Shakespeare

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

Messing about with Manuscripts poster showing a page from an illuminated manuscript with foliate design.

Messing about with Manuscripts’: R.A.B. Mynors and Balliol’s Medieval Library

This exhibition is inspired by the work of Balliol Fellow Roger Mynors, whose 1963 catalogue listing and describing the College’s celebrated manuscript collection has provided a gateway to the medieval world for generations of scholars.

Most of Balliol’s medieval books have been together in the College, read and used by academics and thinkers at Balliol since the Middle Ages. This exhibition brings together for the first time the history of the collection with the processes and the people involved in uncovering it, and in doing so, hopes to build upon Mynors’ work in opening up the collection to an even wider audience.

Opens 09 and 10 September 2023, 11.00am‑4.00pm for Oxford Open Doors at Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre in St Cross Church. Further public openings will take place on:

  • Tuesday 17 October, 3pm-7pm
  • Thursday 2 November, 11am-4pm
  • Monday 20 November, 11am-4pm
  • Saturday 2 December, 11am-4pm

Please do drop by to join us.

Previous exhibitions

There are details of previous exhibitions and talks on the events archive page; below are a few examples linking to available catalogues or recordings. Forthcoming exhibitions and talks are advertised on the events page.

  • Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Visit our Historic Collections blog to download the exhibition catalogue. A 50-minute film was 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 …

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 Archive

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.

Church and State 15091745: 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 century

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.

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 2

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

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 manuscript

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 Jonson

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

Engraved portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the College's 2nd Folio, 1632

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 1787

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.

A Session to Suit

Illuminated initial from a 13th century manuscript of Aristotle showing a hooded monk teaching two novices. Balliol manuscript 253

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.