Gifts and Books exhibition

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A Bodleian exhibition which ran from 16 June to 29 October 2023

A major exhibition curated by Dr Nicholas Perkins (Associate Professor in English and Fellow of St Hugh’s College), will open on Friday 16 June at the Weston Library in Oxford (the Bodleian’s special collections library). Gifts are fundamental to human societies. Using the Bodleian’s extraordinary collections, as well as items generously lent by other institutions and individuals, the exhibition explores the relationship between books and gifts. It includes books that were precious gift objects, but also narratives about generosity, exchange and the burdens that gifts may impose. In addition, it suggests the ways in which storytelling itself can be a kind of gift.

The earliest item is a Sumerian clay tablet recording a legend about epic hero Gilgamesh, dating to c.2000 BCE, and lent to the exhibition from the Ashmolean Museum. The most recent is a book that was finished a few weeks ago – a vibrant pop-up by book artist Paul Johnson, which is inspired by poetry and music as a form of creative gift. Alongside this, there are precious manuscripts, early book tokens, political and campaigning materials, and books and items by or for William Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth I, Philip Pullman, Patience Agbabi, Francis Bacon, Shirley Hughes, Percy Shelley, and many many more. 

Nicholas Perkins commented, ‘I’m delighted that Gifts and Books is about to open. It’s a project that has been planned for several years, and flows from my own research into gifts, objects and exchange in medieval literature. The exhibition has plenty of extraordinary medieval items, including the Horn of Ulf from York Minster, given to the church there about a thousand years ago, but it has been very exciting to work on material from many cultures and across a huge timespan. I can’t wait for the doors to open and to see what people make of it.’

As part of the wider exhibition project, Nicholas Perkins held a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship with TORCH. He teamed up with artist Dionne Freeman, and under the aegis of Oxford Health Arts Partnership, they devised a collaborative project, Creative Story Exchange, which brought together young people in Oxfordshire Hospital School and Oxford Spires Academy, and older patients in the City Community Hospital. Inspired by objects and stories from the exhibition, the groups created artworks that are also on display in the Weston Library. You can find out more about the project here.


The exhibition is open every day, from 16 June to 29 October, at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG. Entry is free.

Link to Gifts and Books webpage:

The full-colour exhibition book, Gifts and Books: From Early Myth to the Present, edited by Nicholas Perkins (Bodleian Library, 2023), will be published this week


Dr Perkins talks about his research and looks at some of the items featured in the exhibition during on Radio 4’s The World this Weekend.
Listen to the interview here –