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Why does Cambridge University Library, one of the world’s great research libraries, have ‘ectoplasm’, a spirit trumpet and beard hair posted to Charles Darwin among its eight million books, manuscripts and digital collections?

The answers lie in the second major exhibition of the Library’s 600th anniversary – Curious Objects – which puts on display a collection of curiosities that has been centuries in the making. The exhibits on display in Curious Objects cover all corners of the globe and every era of human history, from the Stone Age to the Space Age.

Research for the exhibition has turned up new and rediscovered finds – including the oldest objects in the Library, two black-topped redware pots from Predynastic Egypt, and the oldest written artefact, a Sumerian clay tablet from around 2200 BCE.

As one of only six Legal Deposit libraries in the UK and Ireland, Cambridge University Library has been entitled to a copy of every UK publication since 1710. But it also predates the era of most modern museums and collections, meaning that over the centuries, it has been a depository for all manner of objects, all of which have a part to play in telling the story of one of the world’s greatest libraries.

“Shabby and beautiful, quirky and controversial, all the objects on display in our new exhibition provoke our curiosity and prompt questions about the nature of libraries – past present and future,” said Professor Christopher Young, Acting University Librarian.

“Our curiosity has been rewarded with some exciting finds,” said Dr Jill Whitelock, Head of Special Collections and Lead Curator. “We’ve opened cupboards and found wall paintings from Pompeii, opened a box of medals and found an ancient clay tablet carefully wrapped in tissue paper. It’s wonderful to think that after 600 years there’s still so much to explore in the Library. We hope visitors to the exhibition will enjoy discovering our curious objects too – where else can you see ‘ectoplasm’ alongside Egyptian artefacts?”

Curious Objects runs from 3 November 2016- 21 March 2017, and is free and open to all.

The virtual exhibition can also be found online at and a selection of items from the exhibition have also been fully digitised and added to the Cambridge Digital Library.