HMML receives largest grant in long history


by Dennis Dalman

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A recent grant of $ 5 million was awarded to the world-renowned University of St. John’s Manuscript Library and Museum, which is the largest grant in the library’s 56-year history.

The grant was awarded by Arcadia Fund, which previously gave two generous grants to the library a few years ago. Established in 2001 and based in the UK, the program offers grants to help preserve cultural heritage across the world. Its mission statement emphasizes the fragility of both cultural heritage and the ecosystem. He says: “Once the memories, knowledge, skills, variety and complexity disappear – once the old complexities are lost – they are difficult to replicate or replace. To that end, Arcadia has so far awarded $ 910 million in grants worldwide.

The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library fits well with Arcadia’s mission statement. For more than half a century, library leaders, staff and technicians have visited knowledge repositories around the world (monasteries, churches, universities, private homes and other places) to preserve manuscripts and other artifacts. .

It is often a race with time because very old manuscripts in so many places are constantly threatened with destruction either by natural disasters (fires, floods, earthquakes, to name just three) or by wars and the deliberate destruction of treasures by factions that want to erase culture and history.

In 1964, HMML was a concept developed by Fr. Colman Barry, Order of St. Benedict, who was the new president of St. John’s University. Its purpose, initially, was to microfilm the manuscripts held in Vatican City, Rome, and then to keep these files for security reasons in a library at St. John’s University. Barry received a $ 40,000 grant from the Hill Family Foundation to shape his vision, which was called the “Monastic Manuscript Project”. It was later named “Hill Museum” in honor of the donor.

Barry recruited staff from SJU to join the project, including Fr. Oliver Kapsner, a monk from St. John’s Abbey who was also a librarian and linguist. He led the project and Fr. Urban Steiner was the field director.

In 1965, the founders of the project decided to expand their efforts beyond the Vatican to include countries from across Europe. But they ran into an obstacle when almost all European countries did not allow any microfilming of their precious manuscripts and artefacts. The only exception was Austria, which welcomed academics and microfilm experts with open arms.

Within a few years, other countries began to see and understand the historical and cultural value of the SJU Manuscript Library, and the project really took off in all directions, and more grants started to come in. Over the past 56 years, the project has had many directors, both men and women. Its current executive director is Fr. Columba Stewart, BSF.

Hundreds of thousands of manuscripts have been microfilmed, and the program has spread to other continents and countries other than Europe: Ethiopia, the island nation Malta in the Mediterranean Sea, Spain, South Africa, India, Iraq, Mali. To date, the HMML contains the largest collection of Ethiopian manuscripts in the world. Over time, the project expanded to include texts and manuscripts of all faiths, in addition to early Christians.

Teams of workers not only microfilmed the manuscripts, but also taught people in those countries how to preserve the originals. In 2000, the advent of digital recording replaced microfilm technology and hard disk image storage was introduced, a huge leap from the heavier microfilm process.

Just as the founders and leaders of the project predicted years ago, many of the original manuscripts and artifacts microfilmed with so much love over the years are now lost or destroyed, victims of conflict, war and death. other disasters, man-made or natural.

In 2011, HMML received the National Medal of Honor from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The HMML has become a virtual mecca for academics around the world, who visit the museum / library in person or access its hundreds of thousands of treasures via a computer. After all, he has the largest comprehensive collection of handwritten images ever. There are at least 300,000 such manuscripts, totaling 50 million manuscript pages, all of which have been cataloged and described for easy access by researchers.

Additionally, the HMML is also a repository for actual artifacts and manuscripts – not just their images. There are around 5,000 rare books at HMML, as well as around 6,000 original works of art and statues, dating back several hundred years to the present day, such as a superb series of original prints by the famous French artist. 20th century, Georges Rouault.

The collections include the following categories: Western European manuscripts, Eastern Christian manuscripts, Islamic manuscripts, Buddhist and Hindu manuscripts, and Maltese manuscripts. There are also special collections, works of art and photographs, a copy of a modern masterpiece, “The Bible of Saint John”, an intense labor of love undertaken by created artists and screenwriters. in the 2000s and funded by SJU. This particular Bible (an “Illuminated Bible”) is a modernized version of what scribe monks have painstakingly done over the centuries with their inks and quill pens.

To learn more about HMML and browse its remarkable collection, visit

Image from Hill Museum & Manuscript Library
This is a microfilm image of a 10th century page “Codes Gerundensis”, a commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus de Liebana, Girona Cathedral, Spain.
Image of Hill Museum and Manuscript Library
It is a silver, jeweled cover from an Armenian gospel book, one of many items in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University.

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