You’re making the arts accessible

Jo Elsworth, Director of the University’s Theatre Collection and Acting Director of Cultural Collections for Library Services, is grateful for what donor funding has achieved so far and excited for the new University library of the future.

Just one of the many ways in which philanthropic gifts have had an impact on the arts has been our ability to purchase the incredible body of work contained in the personal archive of Oliver Messel. He was a key figure in twentieth century theatre, film, architecture and decor and the archive is one of the most significant purchases made by the Theatre Collection. We absolutely wouldn’t have managed to do it without support from people like you.

When I first assessed the archive, I spent a whole day with Oliver’s nephew, Thomas, uncovering the life story of an incredible creative genius. I opened box after box of letters, photographs, sketches and more, and saw the names and faces of twentieth century icons, such as Lauren Bacall, Cecil Beaton, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh and Oliver’s uncle, Lord Snowdon. It was an amazing day that eventually led to us purchasing the archive with the support of our many donors.

Interest in Messel is so high that we have already had 30 scholars from all around the world come to study the archive. However, to date, we have not been able to showcase these fascinating items effectively to a wider audience. To put it into context, our Theatre Collection gets a footfall of approximately 3,000 people each year. Yet when we loaned some items to the National Trust who own Messel’s family home, Nyman’s, 38,000 visitors came and viewed the exhibition.

This archive is just one of many collections cared for by the University. Both the University’s Special Collections – archival collections and rare books, many about medical history, religion, philosophy, early sciences and politics – and the Theatre Collection are highly regarded as a vital source of information to researchers, academics and students. The collections are also heavily used in teaching and have a relevance to many different disciplines studied within the University. They are also relevant today because by looking to our past we can understand our present and shape our future.

This is why I’m so passionate about our project to build a new University library at the heart of the campus, where exhibition galleries will enable us to share these wonderful collections with staff, students and the city.

This flagship library will find exciting new ways of making books, digital resources and our cultural collections accessible to the next generation of scholars. And we need your help to do it. I was so moved to hear recently about a donor who left a large legacy to Bristol, specifically to help make the new library a reality. Truly, gifts of all sizes are enabling us to build fantastic collections and share them with you. I hope you’ll come and find out more when you are next in Bristol.


Thank you for keeping Bristol brilliant. Click here to return to our Benefactor’s report 2017/18.

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