[column] “Once upon a law”: designing an interdisciplinary exhibition and giving illustration a space

“Once upon a law”: designing an interdisciplinary exhibition and giving illustration a space

18 december 2022 door Emilie Sitzia

Last spring and over the summer I worked with an amazing team on the exhibition Once upon a law: the Grimm Brothers’ stories, language, and legal culture

This project is a collaboration between the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the Faculty of Law, and the University Library at Maastricht University (UM). The exhibition was co-curated by the students of Arts and Audiences elective in the Master Arts and Heritage at UM as well as Agustin Parise, Odin Essers and Melissa Prinz, who coordinated the whole project, and me.

The exhibition wants to find out what the link is between the Grimm Brothers’ collection of stories, their work on language, and law. It includes materials from Maastricht University’s Special Collections and aims to help students and a more general public understand the unexpected connections between storytelling, language, and law.

Working with an interdisciplinary team, the challenge was to give illustration a space in the exhibition. What space could we give, beyond the decorative, to the exceptional UM collection of Golden Age of Illustration books? The students and the overall team worked to integrate the illustrations fully in the overall narrative. 

The exhibition explores how the Grimm Brothers depicted the legal culture of their time through storytelling and the study of language. For example, Hansel and Gretel teaches about the respect for the elder and their commands, something subscribed to blindly at that time and place. How to choose illustrations that showed this in a clear manner and how to communicate around the illustrations to make our argument clear?  

The first part of the exhibition focused on the legal environment of Wilhelm (1786–1859) and Jacob Grimm (1785 –1863): from their training in law and their interaction with the leading jurist of the time, Friedrich von Savigny (1779–1861). The Grimm Brothers were immersed and engaged in the legal debates of their times. This gave a solid context to our narrative. The exhibition then focused on the Brothers’ stories identifying the underlying legal customs. How can the stories be read as a manual for good behavior? What do they tell us about the social codes and legal framework of the time? This is where illustrations are best integrated in our storytelling. Indeed, illustrations themselves reflect the moral values of the time they were produced in, the personal positioning and understanding of the tales by the illustrators. Putting forward the alignments and sometimes dissonance between the Grimm words and the illustrations helped us clarify the exhibition narrative.   

This interdisciplinary research-based exhibition has an online multi-modal component that includes extra information, images of rare (illustrated) books from UM’s and other Special Collections, video interviews of experts, prints, readings of tales, and objects related to the topic. Our objective was to intrigue and engage the audience with an unusual approach to fairy tales and legal history integrating illustration in our argumentation.

The online exhibition can be found at onceuponalaw.org.