“On the Edge: Medieval Margins and the Margins of Academic Life”
An exhibit illuminates the University of Chicago’s lighter side.
What does the medieval era have in common with the University of Chicago? It’s not a trick question. Rather, it’s what art-history Ph.D. candidate Kelli Wood was thinking as she read Image on the Edge—a canonical book on medieval manuscripts written 20 years ago by the beloved, late professor Michael Camille.
The idea led to Wood’s curation of “On the Edge: Medieval Margins and the Margins of Academic Life,” an exhibit running at the Special Collections Research Center gallery through August 10. Organized around an offbeat idea, the exhibition compares medieval book illustrations—rimmed by mischievous apes, dragons and human figures—with the eccentric perimeter of academia at the University of Chicago. “When I thought about [Camille’s] book, it really struck me how it resonates with what I see on campus,” Wood says. “There’s a scholastic rigor—both at the center of medieval manuscripts and at the center of life at the university—but yet what happens at the edges of that really enriches that through play.”
A group of Ph.D. candidates assisted Wood with the manuscript research, while undergraduates studied the nuances of student life—its water-gun fights, comedic shows like the famous Latke–Hamantash Debate, and the notorious irony-tinged T-shirt, “Where fun comes to die.”
To display the school, Wood culled student photographs from a call-for-entry. One photo flaunts the ultimate student shenanigan, a caged tiger purchased for a scavenger hunt. In the display underneath, a leopard figure peers out from a medieval manuscript. And this is where the exhibit falters: The lustrous, allegorical illuminations show the fragility of life—something that most of the photos’ goofy subjects show ignorance of.
But the exhibit is a nice reminder that the university harbors a beautiful and robust collection of illuminated manuscripts—made more accessible by boisterous students.