On the margins

LibraryCollectionsOn the margins

The collection put together by Martin Bodmer also includes objets d’art and other artifacts that reflect the cultures that produced them.

A (partial) inventory lists 117 pieces illustrating prehistory, ancient Egypt, the ancient Middle East, ancient and Hellenistic Greece, Rome, medieval and modern Europe, the tribal arts of the Americas, Africa and Oceania, and the Far East.

Along with the above there is an important collection of coins, 148 pieces to be exact, which range from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages; a collection of drawings; a collection of fossils; and a collection of stones. There was even a collection of butterflies once, which was later donated to Geneva’s Natural History Museum. There are several reasons for the existence of these special collections.

Initially, the written word, which bears witness to human civilization, was transmitted by a range of supports. Cylinder seals, statues, steles, and ostraca from Egypt, for example, bear hieroglyphic inscriptions. This is exactly in keeping with the grand design of the collection, and likewise holds for the different ancient coins that are conserved at the foundation.

Martin Bodmer also wanted to bring together tokens of civilizations that knew no system of writing in counterpoint to the historical civilizations that did, viz., Mexico, Peru, Africa, and Oceania. Such objects, moreover, serve as illustrations of various moments in the great discoveries, from Alexander to Magellan.

Bust of Homer, 1st c. BCE. >


The foundation also has to heed the urge to situate the great works in their proper context through a play of correspondences. Thus, copies of the Book of the Dead, for instance, are displayed alongside objects related to the Egyptian funerary customs and beliefs, Greek amphora illustrate scenes from Homer and Greek mythology, while a bust of Homer, Alexander, or Caesar provides an ancient material representation of a great figure from history or literature.

A mosaic like the one that bears the names of Parthenope and Metiochos attests to the existence of a lost Hellenistic story and thus completes one chapter in the history of literature.

In the field of art, the drawings in the collection stand as a form of graphic expression just as letters, numbers, and musical notation do, while suggesting connections with books that are part of world literature (Biblical, mythological, and literary themes). The same holds for the Brussels tapestries and Japanese kakemonos.

Finally, Martin Bodmer sought to locate the products of the human mind vis-à-vis nature and life, as well as in the dizzying stretches of time that Michel Serres calls the “Grand Narrative,” from the origins of the universe to the appearance of humans.