by Dennis Dalman
A $5 million grant was recently awarded to the world-famous St. John’s University Museum & Manuscript Library, which is the biggest grant in that library’s 56-year history.
The grant was given by Arcadia Fund, which previously gave two generous grants to the library some years ago. Established in 2001 and based in the United Kingdom, the program provides grants to help preserve cultural heritage throughout the world. Its mission statement emphasizes the fragility of both the cultural heritage but also the ecosystem. It states, “Once memories, knowledge, skills, variety and intricacy disappear – once the old complexities are lost – they are hard to replicate or replace.” To that end, Arcadia has so far given $910 million in grants worldwide.
The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library fits the Arcadia mission statement nicely. For more than half a century, the library’s leaders, staff and technicians have been visiting repositories of knowledge throughout the world (monasteries, churches, universities, private homes and other places) to preserve manuscripts and other artifacts.
It is often a race with time because such very old manuscripts in so many places are under constant threat of being destroyed either by natural catastrophes (fires, floods, earthquakes, to name just three) or by wars and the purposeful destruction of the treasures by factions who want to erase culture and history.
Back in 1964, the HMML was a concept developed by Fr. Colman Barry, Order of St. Benedict, who was the newly installed president of St. John’s University. His goal, at first, was to microfilm manuscripts housed in the Vatican City, Rome and then keep those records for safety at a St. John’s University library. Barry secured a grant of $40,000 from the Hill Family Foundation to give shape to his vision, which was called the “Monastic Manuscript Project.” Later, it was named the “Hill Museum” in honor of the grant giver.
Barry recruited SJU personnel to join the project, including Fr. Oliver Kapsner, a St. John’s Abbey monk who was also a librarian and language linguist. He headed the project, and Fr. Urban Steiner served as its field director.
By 1965, the project founders decided to expand their efforts beyond the Vatican to include countries throughout Europe. But they hit a barrier when almost all European countries would not allow any microfilming of their treasured manuscripts and artifacts. The one exception was Austria, which welcomed the scholars and microfilm experts with open arms.
In a matter of years, other countries began to see and to understand the historic and cultural value of the SJU manuscript library, and the project really took off in all directions, and more grants began to come in. Throughout the past 56 years, the project has had numerous directors, including both men and women. Its current executive director is Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB.
Hundreds of thousands of manuscripts were microfilmed, and the program expanded to other continents and countries other than Europe: Ethiopia, the island nation Malta in the Mediterranean Sea, Spain, South Africa, India, Iraq, Mali. To this day, the HMML contains the largest collection of Ethiopian manuscripts in the world. Over time, the project expanded to include texts and manuscripts of all faiths, besides early Christian ones.
The teams of workers not only microfilmed the manuscripts but taught the people in those countries ways to preserve the originals. In 2000, the advent of digital recording replaced microfilm technology, and hard-drive image storage was introduced, a huge advance over the more cumbersome microfilm process.
Just as the founders and leaders of the project predicted years ago, many of the original manuscripts and artifacts so lovingly microfilmed through the years are now lost or destroyed, the victims of strife, wars and other disasters, man-made and natural.
In 2011, the HMML was honored with the National Medal of Honor from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The HMML has become a virtual mecca for scholars the world over, who either visit the museum/library in person or access its hundreds of thousands of treasures via computer. After all, it has the largest comprehensive collection of manuscript images ever created. There are at least 300,000 such manuscripts, totaling 50 million handwritten pages, which have all been catalogued and described for easy access by scholars.
In addition, the HMML is also a repository for actual artifacts and manuscripts – not just images of them. There are about 5,000 rare books at HMML, as well as about 6,000 original art works and statues, stemming back many hundreds of years right up to the present day, such as a stunning series of original prints by the famed 20th Century French artist, Georges Rouault.
The collections include the following categories: Western European Manuscripts, Eastern Christian Manuscripts, Islamic Manuscripts, Buddhist and Hindu Manuscripts and Malta Manuscripts. There are also special collections, art and photographs a copy of a modern masterpiece, “The Saint John’s Bible,” an intense labor of love undertaken by artists and script writers created in the 2000s and financed by SJU. That particular Bible (an “illuminated Bible”) is a modernized version of what monk scribes laboriously did in centuries past with their inks and quill pens.
To learn more about HMML and to peruse its remarkable collection, visit www.hmml.org.