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

Going Up to Balliol: Mountaineering at the College

This exhibition will investigate the growing interest in mountaineering from the 18th century onwards when scientists and natural philosophers began their explorations. Right in the middle of Europe, the Victorians ‘discovered’ a wilderness which was barely mapped: the Alps. Historically these mountains had been surrounded in myth and superstition; in the 18th century a respected scientist, Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, had enumerated the species of dragon that were reported to be native to them.

It wasn’t entirely known if humans could survive at such altitudes. Balliol people were amongst the first to venture up to find out, and later to ascend mountains of even higher altitude across the globe. In 1909, the Oxford University Mountaineering Club was founded by Arnold Lunn (Balliol 1907) and its members undertook many first ascents around the world. Notable amongst them were Charles Evans, who was in the first successful expedition to Kangchenjunga in 1955; Tom Bourdillon (Balliol 1942), who climbed many hard Alpine routes in the 1950s and was a member of the Everest expedition in 1953 which made the first ascent; and Stephen Venables, the first British climber to summit Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen.

This exhibition will uncover the stories of Balliol people involved in some important expeditions, scientific innovations and adventures. We explore these through Balliol’s historic collections, with exhibits including a Mont Blanc board game from the 19th century and highlights from the archive of the Chalet des Anglais (a chalet shared between Balliol, University and New Colleges), as well as a few items borrowed from the Alpine Club, such as Tom Bourdillon’s Everest diary and down suit. The people included are by no means the only mountaineers connected to the College – there are many more in the past and there’ll be many in the future; theirs are just some of the stories we can tell about Balliol and the mountains.

Opening times:

  • Sunday 21 April, 11.00am—4.00pm
  • Thursday 25 April, 3.00pm—7.00pm
    • 7.00pm, Lecture: ‘Mountaineering to Alpinism: A Steep Learning Curve’ by Tim Exley
  • Friday 3 May, 11.00am—4.00pm
  • Wednesday 8 May, 3.00pm—7.00pm
    • 7.00pm, Lecture‘Getting High: Climbing the Seven Summits’ by James Ogilvie (Balliol 1976)
  • Monday 13 May, 11.00am—4.00pm
  • Sunday 26 May, 11.00am—4.00pm
  • Wednesday 29 May, 3.00pm—7.00pm
    • 7.00pm, Lecture: ‘Everest 1953’ by Mick Conefrey
  • Thursday 6 June, 11.00am—4.00pm
    • 4.00pm, Lecture: ‘Behind Everest: Ruth Mallory’s Story’ by Kate Nicholson
  • Saturday 8 June, 11.00am—4.00pm
  • Monday 10 June, 11.00am—4.00pm

The exhibition is also open by appointment: please email library@​balliol.​ox.​ac.​uk.

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.

  • Messing About with Manuscripts’: R.A.B. Mynors and Balliol’s Medieval Library (autumn 2023): see the Messing About with Manuscripts catalogue.
  • A Taste of Balliol: Food and Dining in the Historic Collections of Balliol College (spring 2023)
  • 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.
  • Messing About with Manuscripts’: R.A.B. Mynors and Balliol’s Medieval Library (autumn 2020): see the Messing About with Manuscripts catalogue.
  • A Load of Old Babel: the Languages and Scripts of Balliol College (spring 2020): see Load of Old Babel online exhibition
  • Dervorguilla & Daughters: 750 Years of Women at Balliol College (autumn 2019): see the Dervorguilla & Daughters catalogue
  • Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch: cataloguing and conserving a 17th century library (autumn 2018): see the Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch catalogue.
  • Professor Lesley J. Higgins, Spelt from Hopkins’ Leaves: Considering Archival ‘Remains’: see 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 Unlocking Archives talk about the exhibition.
  • ‘Industrious but Eccentric’: Algernon Charles Swinburne at Balliol (autumn 2015): Swinburne exhibition 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 Graham Greene exhibition catalogue.
  • Graham Greene, a Personal View: Unlocking Archives talk given by Nicholas Dennys on 8 June 2015: see a video of the talk.

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.