What Makes a 'Good' Exhibition Catalogue?

I think there are certain things one should expect from an exhibition catalogue. It should mention and describe every item on display. It should explain each item's significance, both to the subject and within the exhibit itself. It should draw a larger narrative from the exhibit; provide a text for the modern. Finally, there should be lots of nice pictures. Franz A.J. Szabo does all of these admirably in Legacy of Empire, then he goes one further.

Legacy of Empire, Bruce Peel Special Collection's display of "[t]reasures of the University of Alberta's Central European Library Collection," draws primarily from two important collections. In response to the Council of Trent, "the Provincial Council of the ecclesiastical principality of Salzburg established an Archiepiscopal Seminary (Erzbischofliches Priesterseminar zu Salzburg)" At that time, the Priesterseminar Library was founded "with books contributed from the private library of the Archbishop." Holdings ballooned to 1,330 volumes by 1641, under the "dynamic but mercurial Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau". Over 50% of the titles in the final collection are dated before 1800.

The display's second major source, "[t]he Leseverin Collection consists of what remained of the private library of the Juridicial-Political Reading Club of Vienna when the decision was made to sell it". (1969) Szabo has interesting insights into the changing membership of the reading club, as well as the focus of the library, from its founding in 1841. Formally opened just six years before the Revolutions of 1848, the Leseverin is an important primary source for its intellectual origins. Also of note are the many (130+) periodicals, "often containing complete runs of serials difficult to find elsewhere - even in Austria."

Not all catalogues tell you all this. Some I've read simply say, Books from the Somebody Collection, and it's up to you to figure out who or what that is. That's a shame, because I enjoy the collecting as much as the collection. Where Szabo goes one better is by describing the fortuitous circumstances which led to the Salzburg and Leseverin Collections coming half-way around the world to Edmonton. People with passions, an expanding university, and perhaps above all, the available funding to jump on those "once in a lifetime opportunities" all played a part in a fascinating story.

Szabo explains that the current holdings of the University of Alberta's Central European Library Collection have built on each other. The acquisition of the Salzburg Collection led to the purchase of the Leseverin. This core led "engaged professors" in the field to bring in other items, while private donations rounded out the collection. The William C. Wonders Map Collection also launched an aggressive purchase plan of Central European items, driven by the "tenacious efforts and Austrophilic enthusiasms of the late Ron Whinstance-Smith, former map-curator." These, in turn, became "a critical factor in the 1997 decision of the Austrian government to award an important incentive package to the University for the establishment in 1998 of the Canadian Centre for Austrian and Central European Studies...",1 The Legacy of Empire exhibit marks the 10th anniversary of that event.

The catalogue then, goes well beyond a simple list of the exhibition items. Szabo appears intimately familiar with these works and weaves their individual and cumulative histories together with the people who brought them together.


 1Renamed The Wirth Institue for Austrian and Central European Studies following an endowment by Dr. Manfred and Dr. Alfred Wirth.

All quotes and page numbers (and most of the rest of the info in this entry) are from:
Szabo, Franz A. J. Legacy of Empire: Treasures of the University of Alberta's Central European Library Collection. (Edmonton: U. of Alberta P., 2008) Soft cover. 8 x 10 1/2" 60p. 35+ colour illus. + colour folding map on inner front cover. ISBN 978-1-55195-235-2 $25 Available through bpsc(at)library.ualberta.ca