Friday, 11 November 2016

The Society for Psychical Research in the exhibition of Curious Objects

Cambridge University Library (CUL) is currently the venue for an exhibition of curious objects called, appropriately, Curious Objects.  On show are some of the unusual items held by the Library in this second public presentation to mark the institution’s 600th anniversary, the purpose to stress that there is a lot more to the collections for which it has responsibility than books and manuscripts.  Many of the items were accumulated by individuals or picked up as curiosities and came into the library’s possession by chance.  Others were seen as expanding the idea of the library as a repository for the written word to include supplementary material which aided study.  Occasionally the Library has acquired an institutional archive intact, artefacts arriving as a by-product of records.  Sometimes books obtained under the Copyright Act have extra bits bundled in.  Over the years many pieces have been transferred to other repositories within the university, but there is still a lot in the vaults with which to compose a wonderfully eclectic miscellany.

Among the ancient Egyptian pots, facial hair sent to Charles Darwin, Soviet ephemera, footwear and so on is a case devoted to items drawn from the archives of the Society for Psychical Research which, though in the care of CUL, are still the property of the SPR and shown with its permission.  The most eye-catching, and frequently mentioned in publicity, is undoubtedly the ‘ectoplasm’ retrieved from medium Helen Duncan after a séance in Portsmouth.  The soft lighting displays the fabric beautifully even as it undermines any claim to paranormality.  Alongside it is a page from an SPR report of a 1931 séance with Mrs Duncan.

At the other end of the case is a cardboard ‘luminous trumpet’ and its box, as sold by the Two Worlds Publishing Co., Manchester, in the 1920s – British made, 5/- post free.  These were used in séances to amplify spirit voices.  An 1884 slate bears a fine example of spirit writing obtained through the mediumship of William Eglinton, and a photograph by William Crawford has Belfast medium Kathleen Goligher sitting with an ectoplasmic ‘psychic rod’ between her feet.  Next door a photograph of Mina Crandon, the medium ‘Margery’, her face covered by ectoplasm, is accompanied by three wax impressions of thumb prints taken during a séance at the SPR’s premises in London in 1929 that were supposedly from her control, her deceased brother Walter Stinson.

The paper parts of the Society’s holdings are justly famous for their quality, but its other possessions are less well known, and this makes their appearance here noteworthy.  A handsome free booklet has been produced to accompany Curious Objects with 20 high-quality photographs of some of the choicest; it is gratifying to see that two are devoted to the SPR’s contribution, the spirit trumpet and a fine smoky rendition of the Duncan ectoplasm.

It was one of the conditions in the agreement signed by the SPR’s president and the Chairman of the Library Syndicate in 1989 to transfer the SPR’s rare books and archives (other than its audio-visual collection) to Cambridge that CUL would ‘endeavour during the continuance of this agreement to exhibit Society materials whenever possible and to arrange special exhibitions of Society materials as possible.’  This hasn’t happened much in the decades since so CUL are to be congratulated on making the SPR such an important element in their anniversary celebration.  But don’t just visit Curious Objects (open until 21 March 2017) to see the SPR’s treasures – there is much here to enjoy.  Entry is free and if you find yourself in Cambridge it is a fine way to spend an hour, browsing among the stranger things librarians deal with at work.

NB The web pages set up for the exhibition by the university include two items not mentioned above.  These are a cast of the left hand of medium D. D. Home, which has been cleverly rendered in 3D so the viewer can see all round the object; and examples of Harry Price’s ‘Telepatha’ cards with score sheet, his improvement on J. B. Rhine’s Zener cards designed for use in ESP experiments.  These are not in fact among the artefacts in the display but are illustrated on a panel attached to the wall next to it.  Sadly there was not enough room in the case to include the objects themselves.  The panel, headed ‘Spirits, psychics and artefacts’, also gives details of the SPR’s origins and its archives and notes that the Society is still in existence.