Curator of the Month: Claire Breay, British Library

  • Published 25 September 2018

Curator of the upcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, Claire Breay tells us about her career and picks her favourite items from the library's collection.

Claire Breay, head of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts at the British Library

Claire Breay, head of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts at the British Library

How did you start out as a curator?

When I finished my degree in history and classics, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I had done quite a bit of archival work for my final-year dissertation, and that inspired me to do a one-year archival work experience post at the Borthwick Institute in York, and then to train as an archivist at Aberystwyth University.

After that, I did a PhD at the Institute of Historical Research in London which involved editing the cartulary of Chatteris Abbey, a British Library manuscript containing copies of the charters of the medieval nunnery at Chatteris in Cambridgeshire.

What was your first job in the library world, and what did you learn from your role that helped you secure your next one?

Six months before I submitted my PhD, I started work as an archivist at Lambeth Palace Library. I worked in the reading room, catalogued the papers of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and worked on an exhibition to mark the 1400th anniversary of St Augustine’s mission to England in 597.

After less than two years at Lambeth, I saw an advert for a curator of medieval historical manuscripts at the British Library. I think the combination of my PhD, my archival qualification and experience of working in a research collection probably helped me to get the job. That was 20 years ago this year.

What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?

Collection and subject knowledge, passion, organisation, good communication and resilience.

Can you tell us about a highlight of your career?

In 2012 the British Library announced that it had acquired the 1300-year-old St Cuthbert Gospel, following a £9 million fundraising campaign which was supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund.

The manuscript, which retains its original binding, is the earliest intact European book and had been the most important medieval English manuscript still in private hands. Working on its acquisition for the national collection and then co-editing a volume of new research on the manuscript was a major highlight for me.

Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator?

Working on big projects that involve major publications while keeping the rest of my job going and trying to balance that with family life and bringing up three children is a continual challenge.

Can you tell us about the process of creating the upcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition at the British Library, and what visitors might be able to expect from it?

The exhibition was commissioned in 2013 and draws on the library’s own exceptional collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, the unique manuscript of Beowulf, the Benedictional of St Æthelwold and the Harley Psalter.

Over half the exhibits are loans. A great deal of work went into persuading institutions to lend some of their greatest treasures, as well as into fundraising to support the significant cost of bringing these loans to London from across the UK, Europe and from one lender in New York.

The exhibition is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see the original evidence for the art, literature and history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, brought together in London. There are several recent archaeological discoveries, including key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, as well as manuscripts that have not been seen in Britain since Anglo-Saxon times, such as Codex Amiatinus, a giant manuscript of the whole Bible which has not been back to England for 1300 years, and the Vercelli Book, one of the four great manuscripts of Old English poetry, which will be on display in Britain for the first time too.

The exhibition also includes Domesday Book on loan from the National Archives, which preserves unrivalled evidence for the landscape and organisation of late Anglo-Saxon England.

What’s special about working at your library?

Definitely the collection and my colleagues. But also the opportunity to work on big projects such as the Codex Sinaiticus project to digitise and reunite online the earliest manuscript of the Bible (written in the 4th century and now held in four different institutions), and the opportunity to curate the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition in 2015, as well as Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms this year.

What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?

I had always loved the St Cuthbert Gospel, even when it was on long-term loan to the library, before we were able to add it to the collection.

It is a pocket-sized copy of the Gospel of John, which can be held in one hand. It was written at Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, probably in the early 8th century, the same time and place as Codex Amiatinus, the giant manuscript of the whole Bible which was taken to Italy in 716 and has not been back to Britain since then.

Bringing these two treasures of Anglo-Saxon England together again for the first time in 1300 years is one of the highlights of our exhibition this autumn.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is 50% off with National Art Pass (£16 standard), British Library, London.

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