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Quaquaversal, Cabinet of Curiosities and the school library

Published on 19/01/14

Quaquaversal. Yes, that’s right. Quaquaversal. I heard this word for the first time at the opening of our reconceived school library. Why? Because our guest speaker, Dr Robert Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge, saw this concept as central to our new library inspired by the spirit of the Renaissance Cabinet of Curiosities.
For those of you unfamiliar with quaquaversal, it is a term used in geology meaning directed outwards to every point of the compass from a common centre. And it captures beautifully the thinking behind a Cabinet of Curiosities.

The centre of quaquaversal for our new library is an exhibition inspired by the life of Jacquetta Hawkes, a pupil at Perse Girls a century ago. She was born Jacquetta Hopkins in 1910. Her father, Sir Frederick Hopkins, was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, where his research into biochemistry led to his discovery of vitamins for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1929. He was incidentally a cousin of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Jacquetta clearly was born into an intellectually interesting family.

As a subject for an inaugural exhibition, this most distinguished alumna was perfect. The many and various strands to Jacquetta’s life offered a unique opportunity to create a provocative quaquaversal learning space. Through the generosity of local museums and a private collector, the extraordinary archaeological world of this great female adventurer was celebrated – in our senior school library.

Our creation of a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammer, as it is also known, is the logical next step in the evolution of a library in a digital age. Yes, there are books and the obligatory bean bags for relaxed reading in the space, but the central purpose of this new learning environment is to encourage curiosity untrammelled by preconceptions or indeed physical barriers. For the Jacquetta Hawkes’ exhibition our Digital Researcher has created an iBook which is an interactive catalogue for the exhibits. At the click of a finger the viewer can delve into a dimension of a physical object and spin away into a cornucopia of resources which challenge and enrich in equal measure.

And as the digital world expands opportunities for learning, those with responsibility for educating young people need to be mindful of the unintended consequences of information out there lacking curation and context. Equipped as our students are with iPads, we are very conscious of their digital potential to enhance learning. We also appreciate that a virtual world devoid of integral values to aid young people’s judgement is intellectually a corrosive unintended consequence of the digital revolution. Hence our determination to create a Cabinet of Curiosities. The quaquaversal effect is within an intellectual framework which encourages a variety of pathways taking young people on a journey of curiosity skilfully curated by the Curator and the Digital Researcher.

The Cabinet of Curiosities also offers the opportunity to share with students subjects which would not necessarily pique their interest. The distractions of our digital age mean we are in danger of young people failing to engage with aspects of our culture which are arguably less accessible and require a greater intellectual effort. The Jacquetta Hawkes exhibition is a case in point. On the surface a rather worthy topic but within the Cabinet Jacquetta’s world view is so fascinating that it is a beacon for curiosity. The highly successful opening of this new space attended by adults and students is a testament to how we can share values and interests across generations.

We are already planning future exhibitions. Obviously World War One must be explored. A random conversation with our Head of English who has a passion for cinema was the quaquaversal in action – the cinematic dimension of the war could be interrogated. For me, I quite like the idea of an exhibition inspired by Sherlock. Who knows where the quaquaversal would lead with such an extraordinary subject.