Writing: Making Your Mark – British Library

British Library Writing exhibition

I paid a fascinating visit to the new British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which looks at the history of writing from ancient times to the present day.

The origins of writing can be found 5,000 years ago; it began in different places around the world at different times and for different reasons. One of the main advantages of writing was the possibility of communication across time and space: we can, if we understand the alphabet and language used, read what somebody wrote several thousand years ago. Various writing systems and styles have developed, many of which have common ancestors. I found it fascinating to look at different systems and see how they developed from older ones.

Materials and technology have changed over the years, beginning with carved letters produced by a stylus in wax. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus before paper was developed. Handwriting, too, has undergone changes, created first with quill pens then fountain and ball point. Medieval manuscripts gave way to the printed word, which at first emulated the handwritten style. Calligraphy remains a valued, albeit niche, skill even since the development of typewriters and then computers.

Learning to write has always taken time and effort, even from the very beginning. Learning how to form letters is an important part of education for young children. The future of writing surely involves technology, with the increasing use of emojis, but people are still interested in notebooks and pens.

Clay tablet
4,000-year-old clay tablet

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War – British Library

Entrance to the exhibition

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is an exhibition at the British Library that I knew I definitely wanted to see. Though the Anglo-Saxon era is not my favourite, I did study history for my degree and to some extent all periods of history are interesting to me.

Anglo-Saxon settlers from northern Europe came to Britain in the 5th century, eventually forming several kingdoms that would one day become England. The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts that help to illuminate this exciting period of history.

The exhibition has some amazing treasures on display, including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Domesday Book, and artefacts from the Sutton Hoo burial ground. It takes a broadly chronological approach, looking at how the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms developed from the first arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to the Norman Conquest.

The Anglo-Saxon era was not static; different kingdoms gained and lost power over the centuries. Early in the era, the kingdom of Northumbria was in the ascendant, while later on, Mercia became the most powerful. By the tenth century, King Aethelstan was exercising power over most of what is now England and south-east Scotland.

The exhibition emphasises the multicultural links of the Anglo-Saxon world, with connections to Ireland and mainland Europe, and its literary, artistic and scientific developments. It is a fascinating exhibition, showing that even a world over 1,000 years old can still be relevant to ours.

James Cook: The Voyages – British Library

On the very last day of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition at the British Library, I popped down to pay it a visit. Luckily, like all exhibitions at the BL it opens late on Tuesdays, so I was able to pop down after work.

August 2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook’s first voyage sailed from Plymouth. This exhibition examines each of the three voyages in chronological order, using original artefacts created on board ship and collected from the places Cook and his crew explored. It examines the impact the voyages – which increased awareness of many of the coasts and islands of the Pacific, unknown to Europeans despite being inhabited for thousands of years – had on the modern world, both for the British and for the people who inhabited those places, both positive and negative.

I liked the way the exhibition was set out, with Cook’s travels clearly delineated – there were plenty of maps and globes on display to show where he went. Cook’s voyages took him to South Africa and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and many islands in the Pacific, as well as, of course, Antarctica. Cook’s ship was the first to ever venture into the Antarctic Circle, and I was excited to see the entry in the ship’s log marking this momentous occasion. For most people, though, Cook’s encounters with the original inhabitants of the places he visited are probably of greater interest. While not every interaction Cook and his crew had with these people was negative by any means, there was mistrust, misunderstanding and conflict, and his voyages helped pave the way for the colonialism of later centuries, and all the atrocities that went with it.

Artefacts such as logbooks, diaries and published works are displayed, as well as paintings and drawings by crew members and those employed as artists. There are also a good number of objects and works of art made by Aboriginal, Maori, Polynesian and other peoples to attempt a more balanced perspective.

I thought the exhibition did a good job of examining Cook’s voyages, their impact, significance and consequences. I’m very glad I made the effort to go before it closed.

What Does the Antarctic Mean? – British Library

Exhibition banner

I went to a fascinating talk at the British Library, entitled What Does the Antarctic Mean?, part of the Cook’s voyages exhibition season. The talk was chaired by journalist Julia Wheeler, who has written books on both the Antarctic and the Arctic, and featured Jane Francis (Director of the British Antarctic Survey), Damon Stanwell-Smith (Executive Director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), Jane Rumble (Head of the Polar Regions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway University of London).

The talk began with a discussion on the significance of Antarctica. Jane Francis emphasised the importance of Antarctica to science, and explained how the continent influences the world: the climate, sea level rises and tides. Klaus Dodds said that 200 years ago, people tended to see as ice as sublime, awesome, terrifying, and now that relationship has been flipped on its head as we have become aware of the human power over ice. He also talked about the imaginative aspect of Antarctica, and mentioned the Antarctic Treaty, which inspired other treaties including those involving space.

Jane Rumble pointed out that 200 years ago no one knew Antarctica existed: its importance has increased in a very short space of time. It is the only place in the world with no wars, no territorial claims. Damon Stanwell-Smith confessed to amazement that a continent larger than North America hasn’t been colonised, and talked about how Antarctica is something you feel – there is nothing like being there.

The group then discussed the Antarctic Treaty. Dodds explained that this treaty was negotiated over 6 weeks in 1959, and involved the 12 parties who had participated in the International Geophysical Year 1957-58. This was during the middle of the Cold War – there was a worry that such collaboration would not continue.

There were many issues. The UK, Argentina and Chile claimed the same territory – could they come to blows? The Australian president was convinced that Russian communists wanted to establish bases in Antarctica, while the USA had seriously considered nuclear testing. The treaty nearly didn’t happen – especially thanks to Australia, France and Argentina. The treaty would only happen if all 12 countries passed it; there was a deliberate decision to avoid mention of mineral resources or there would have been no agreement.

Rumble then discussed the UK’s territorial claims in more detail, starting with the 1908 claim to the Antarctic peninsula region. There was some discussion on whether the UK should claim the whole thing; in the end they didn’t, but they did cajole the Commonwealth nations Australia and new Zealand to claim. France joined in, then Germany tried in the 1930s, following which the British supported Norway’s rival claim. As a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, was first to the South Pole, that country’s claim should really have been considered earlier, but at the time Norway was a small newly-independent nation and nobody really took them seriously.

Chile and Argentina placed their own claims during World War II. In 1943 the UK set up the first permanent presence in Antarctica – Operation Tabarin. The US put their base at the South Pole, while Russia put theirs in the Australian bit and refused to move. Despite all this, there is still one unclaimed sector, the most remote.

Rumble discussed the huge amounts of scientific collaboration taking place in Antarctica among scientists, who tend to ignore politics. Shared science programmes abound, including a new joint UK/US project investigating a glacier. If it melts, there will be a sea level rise of over 5 metres. Francis pointed out that when the climate changes, it changes at the Poles first, so Antarctica is the perfect place for this research.

Stanwell-Smith talked about the sometimes-controversial business of modern commercial tourism. This began in the late 1960s and has gone from strength to strength ever since. Most visitors are from North America and other anglophone countries, but there has been an increase in Chinese visitors. In the last year there have been more than 50,000 visitors (of whom 9,000 were on cruises – and did not get off the ship), a rise of 17% from the previous year.

Stanwell-Smith argued that allowing visitors is important, albeit in an appropriate way. Most people who visit have a fascination with Antarctica; perhaps they are older and have a long-held ambition to go. Visiting Antarctica also allows the importance of the continent to be emphasised. Francis pointed out that far more than these visitors, the main problem is people who treat the continent like an adventure playground: such as Guirec Soudee, a French man who is travelling around the world with his pet chicken, Monique. It sounds like a fun story, but there was a very real risk that the chicken could have passed on avian flu to the native penguin population.

Dodds spoke about the challenging relationship between tourists and scientists: some scientists see tourists as a distraction, but public outreach is now recognised as an important part of a scientist’s role. Dodds also pointed out that Antarctica still has a very small number of visitors for such a large place.

Finally, Rumble was asked about the most important aspect of Antarctica to the UK government, and responded, ‘Peace and stability.’ A strong treaty system is very important and science is a clear priority.

I really enjoyed this fascinating talk.

Harry Potter: A History Of Magic – British Library

I booked my exhibition ticket for Harry Potter: A History of Magic back in April, and it’s just as well, as many dates for this groundbreaking exhibition are already sold out. It’s the first British Library exhibition to focus on the work of a living author, and I couldn’t imagine a better subject. The exhibition will fascinate any Harry Potter fan, but there’s much here to interest those who have never read a word about the famous boy wizard.

J.K. Rowling took inspiration from myths, legends and history to write about the magic in her books, and the exhibition looks at how magic as it has been seen in our world helped to inspire her. It’s divided up into sections based on the subjects Harry studies at Hogwarts: Potions, Divination, Charms, Care of Magical Creatures, and so on, and there is also a section on alchemy, relating to the Philosopher’s Stone which is so important in the first book.

We see many rare books and historical artefacts: the Ripley Scroll, purporting to explain how to make the philosopher’s stone, alongside Nicholas Flamel’s gravestone (apparently discovered being used as a chopping board in Paris). The Potions section has rare books describing the various potions and their antidotes – there is also a bezoar displayed – and Herbology displays a copy of Culpeper’s Herbal, of which Rowling had her own copy that she used to refer to when writing the books. We see a cauldron and a broomstick from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, and possibly my favourite exhibit of all: the ‘Invisibility Cloak’.

Throughout the exhibition, illustrations by Jim Kay bring the characters to life, and we also see sketches by Rowling, which are fascinating as they show the characters as she originally imagined them. My favourite parts were the handwritten or typed early drafts of various chapters, showing the Harry Potter stories as they might have existed, and offering insights into how Rowling changed and adapted her stories.

I loved this exhibition – it runs until February, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but I definitely recommend booking in advance.

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths – British Library

These days I always seem to go to exhibitions towards the end of their run, but I ended up seeing Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at the British Library fairly early, owing to the fact that some friends wanted to go too. We booked for Saturday afternoon and were surprised to find the exhibition so quiet. Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it uses documents, books, letters, photographs and film footage to explore how the revolution began and developed and the impact it made.

I’m vaguely familiar with what happened, as I am very interested in Russian history anyway, but the exhibition helped to clarify events for me, and I think I left with a greater understanding of what was going on. The exhibition followed a largely chronological path, which I personally found very helpful. It looked at the structure of Russian society at the time of the Tsars before examining how and why the revolution was sparked.

My favourite section was actually the final one, ‘Writing the Revolution’, as it looked at some books which are my favourites, including Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. I also enjoyed the look at film at the end, including clips from famous Soviet films.

The exhibition runs until 29 August and it’s definitely worth taking some time out to see it this summer.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line – British Library


Maps and the 20th Century is the latest exhibition at the British Library, exploring the 20th century via the medium of maps. Maps were widely used before this period, of course, but it wasn’t until the last century that map use became more or less universal.

The exhibition covers themes such as war, peace, movement and the market. The war section was one of the most memorable, being full of the kind of propaganda maps that were so common in school textbooks, featuring images like Hitler as a spider spreading his spindly legs over Europe. My personal favourite maps were the original Underground map sketch by Harry Beck, the map of Antarctica, and the map of the shopping centre of Sunderland, my home city.

The exhibition runs until the first of March next year, and it’s well worth seeing for any map fans out there.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts – British Library

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and a number of significant events are taking place all over London to mark the occasion. The British Library‘s most recent exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, tells the story of the playwright via ten significant events.


The 1590s was a transformative decade for Shakespeare. He was established as an actor and playwright by the age of 28 or so. The exhibition displays a copy of the First Folio, put together by John Heminges and Henry Condell, without which around eighteen plays, including The Tempest and Macbeth, might have been lost. It is displayed alongside the famous portrait by Martin Droeshout; though it was made from an engraving made after Shakespeare’s death, Ben Jonson said it was a good likeness.

A number of other books are also displayed, including Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) that referred to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow”: Robert Greene may have been angry he was so successful without having gone to university.

Shakespeare’s first known published work Venus and Adonis (1593) is on display here, as is a volume by Francis Meres. Wit’s Treasury, which praised Shakespeare. We also see a fragment of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore from the early 1600s, part of the only surviving play script to contain Shakespeare’s handwriting. From here, the exhibition is divided into sections according to the event they cover.

1. A hit, a very palpable hit
The first Hamlet at the Globe, about 1600
Based on the Norse folk tale Amleth, Hamlet (the first quarto of which, different from and much shorter than the longer First Folio version, was published in 1603) marked a step up from previous tragedies. The title character was played by the acclaimed actor Richard Burbage. This section of the exhibition contains a map of London by Visscher, a modern-day poster about the play (“Everybody Dies”), and a human skull owned by Sarah Bernhardt, given to her by Victor Hugo and used by her in performance. There are recordings of nine Hamlets from John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh to Herbert Beerbohm Tree and David Tennant, and a portrait of Richard Tarleton, Elizabeth I’s clown, the possible model for Yorick. We see a portrait of Richard Burbage (and his 1619 epitaph), and views of Elsinore and Kronborg castle, as well as a letter about the burning of the Globe in 1613.

2. Into something rich and strange
The Tempest at Blackfriars Playhouse, about 1610-11
The Tempest was written within few years of the King’s Men taking over the indoor theatre at Blackfriars. From 1609 onwards they played at Blackfriars in winter and the Globe in summer. Shakespeare wrote plays making full use of this intimate space, including masque, spectacle and candlelight. Documents on display include some relating to the sale of rooms at Blackfriars in 1596, and objections from locals feeling that the plays would attract undesirable persons (unlikely, as the prices were much steeper than at the Globe). We see a lute, like those used in the indoor playhouse, and the rewritten version of The Tempest by William Davenant in 1667 to make the most of the spectacle. There is a prompt book from Charles Kean’s elaborate 1857 production, and props from Derek Jarman’s 1979 film, as well as filmed scenes from The Enchanted Island by the Met Opera from 2011, and an Ariel costume from 2016.

3. The wide world
Possibly the first Hamlet outside Europe, 1607.
The first Hamlet is widely believed to have been performed on an East India Company ship off Sierra Leone in 1607, although only a fragment of the diary of Captain Keeling, who wrote it down, survives. A model of a similar style warship, complete with levels, hatch and a rear exit, is on display.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays toured to Europe in the seventeenth century, particularly Germany, and often featured clowns. Not everyone was a fan. Voltaire in his The Ruin of the English Stage in 1733 said that Hamlet was “the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage”. Tolstoy wasn’t a fan either, but Goethe was, and David Garrick helped to establish an English theatre in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). The displays include excerpts from the puppet show Der Bestrafte Brudermord by Hidden Room Theatre 2015 based on a German version of Hamlet, and photos from a Soviet production of Macbeth, as well as the first Chinese translation of Shakespeare, a version of Tales from Shakespeare in 1903. The plays had different titles: The Two Gentlemen of Verona was known as Proteus Sells Out His Close Friend for Lust (not a bad description, I reckon). There were also references to West Side Story and Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood film Bobby.

4. Do you not know I am a woman?
A woman acts Shakespeare for the first time, 1660
When Shakespeare was first writing his plays, women were not allowed on stage, and all of the female roles were played by men. This changed after the Restoration when Charles II took the throne and issued a patent legitimising female actors. Edward Kynaston was one of the last men to gain reknown playing female roles from the 1660s; Thomas Killigrew’s theatre patent of 1662 established the rights of 1660 and confirmed “women’s parts… may be played by women”.

Women, even royals such as Anne of Denmark, traditionally appeared in court masques but the first woman to appear in a Shakespeare play – probably Anne Marshall – played Desdemona in Othello in 1660. Different female actors, such as Elizabeth Barry, Jane Lessingham, Elizabeth Younge, Sarah Siddons (one of the first women to play Hamlet) and Ellen Terry were able to develop their careers. This part of the exhibition also includes Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume.

5. ‘Tis mad idolatry
A Shakespeare forgery at Drury Lane, 1796
In 1795 law clerk William Henry Ireland ‘discovered’ a number of Shakespeare manuscripts, including Vortigern, later performed at Drury Lane and ridiculed. These forgeries (displayed in their 1796 editions) were one aspect of the industry that began to grow up around Shakespeare. In 1769 David Garrick established the Shakespeare jubilee celebrations in Stratford, which were sadly rained off. This section includes souvenir medals, examples of Shakespeare’s signature (including the Blackfriars Gatehouse mortgage deed from 1613), a poster for the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love and a copy of the play Shakes Versus Shav by George Bernard Shaw, which includes the first mention of the term “bardolatry”.

6. Haply, for I am black
The first Black actor to play Othello in Britain, 1825
At first, white actors such as Edmund Kean (who played the character as a light-skinned North African) used burnt cork to darken their faces to play Othello. The first black actor to play Othello in Britain was Ira Aldridge, an American actor who successfully toured the UK and Europe, using white makeup in order to play “white” characters. Laurence Olivier played Othello in 1964, and I was shocked to discover he refused to allow African-American actor Paul Robeson to come over to play him. Nowadays, of course, non-white actors routinely perform in Shakespeare and it’s hard to imagine this not being the case; this section of the exhibition was a sobering reminder that this state of affairs is actually quite recent.

7. He is return’d
Shakespeare’s King Lear restored to the stage, 1838
Nahum Tate’s 1681 version of King Lear turned it into a romance with a happy ending. William Charles Macready finally performed as Lear in Covent Garden 1838 using the original ending. The original Lear play existed as King Leir, and the story appears in Hollinshed’s Chronicles. This section of the exhibition includes pictures from Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, a Japanese version of the story, and information about A Thousand Acres, the film of Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel based on the tale.

8. The revolution of the times
Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1970
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play often encumbered by dramatic scenery: as an example, Oliver Messel’s design for the 1937 production is on display, as is the headdress worn by Vivien Leigh as Titania. In contrast, Peter Brook’s 1970 production set the action in an abstract white box designed by Sally Jacobs, and there are lots of photographs and designs from the production and tour to look at.

9. The wheel is come full circle
Shakespeare’s Globe’s Twelfth Night, 2002
This production, starring Mark Rylance (who has contributed costumes to the exhibition), recreated the music, costume and cosmetics of Shakespeare’s time with an all male cast. This part of the exhibition focuses on the desire to return to original practices that began with William Pole in the nineteenth century and came full circle with the reconstruction of the Globe that began in the 1990s.

10. Look here, upon this picture
The Wooster Group Hamlet, 2013
The final part of the exhibition focuses on the Wooster Group production of Hamlet, which made use of the 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton which was shown live from the theatre – the first time a Broadway show had been filmed for a cinema audience. It also contains clips of the Laurence Olivier Henry V of 1943.


This is a fascinating, thorough exhibition, full of exciting artefacts and interesting information. Ideal for any Shakespeare or theatre fan.

Happy Birthday Charlotte – British Library

Charlotte Brontë has to be my all-time favourite author. Jane Eyre was the first ‘classic’ that I ever read, and it is still my favourite book: I find something new in it every time I read it, and I adore Charlotte’s vivid prose.

Yesterday, 21 April 2016, marked the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, and to celebrate the British Library hosted an event with some guest speakers. Facilitated by Xanthe Arvanitakis, curator at the Soane Museum (where an exhibition about Charlotte’s time in London is currently taking place), it featured Charlotte Cory, Ann Dinsdale and Dame Jacqueline Wilson.


Charlotte Cory is an artist whose series, Charlotte Brontë in Babylon, was recently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She is the curator of the aforementioned Charlotte Brontë at the Soane exhibition, which sounds fascinating (Charlotte B never visited the Soane, but it was certainly around when she visited London – and hasn’t changed much since – and Charlotte C has tried to present a “what if?” scenario, giving her in a way the chance to visit after her death). Ann Dinsdale is the Collections Manager at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth: she has worked for the Brontë Society for over 25 years and has written many books on the Brontës and Haworth. Dame Jacqueline Wilson is a bestselling children’s author, and was appointed Ambassador for Charlotte by the Brontë Society recently.

It was lovely to be in a room full of people who are as enthusiastic about Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë as I am. In particular I had no idea that Jacqueline Wilson – whose books I read as a child – was such a big fan. Ann Dinsdale and Charlotte Cory also love the book and it was interesting to hear them compare notes about their first introduction to Jane Eyre. All seemed to agree that it was the opening chapters of the novel featuring the young Jane that initially attracted them to the book, which is something that rings true with my own experience.

Even more fascinating if possible were the anecdotes which all of the speakers regaled us with. Charlotte Cory told us a ghost story about a friend who travelled back to London with the manuscript of Jane Eyre (usually kept in the British Library), which had been lent to Haworth for an exhibition. On getting out of the taxi at the British Museum (where the Library was then housed), the taxi driver insisted that there was another passenger in the cab with them: a small woman, who had inexplicably vanished. I also liked the story of the same friend telling off Princess Margaret for turning the pages of the fragile manuscript!

We got to hear about Charlotte’s time in London, in which she spent lots of time visiting tourist sites as well as some time visiting Bedlam – about which she was, uncharacteristically, silent. We were treated to a performance of the “Hippapotamus Polka” which was a popular work at the time, inspired by a hippo which had recently been introduced to London Zoo.

Afterwards, we were treated to a G&T and a slice of birthday cake to celebrate the 200th anniversary of my favourite author.

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Alice in Wonderland – British Library


I’m a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, and 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. To celebrate, the British Library is holding an exhibition all about Alice.

Starting from Carroll’s initial conception of the tale – as a story told to while away the hours on an Oxford river jaunt one warm June – the exhibition covers the initial manuscript version, Alice Under Ground (which he wrote for Alice Liddell), followed by the full published version complete with John Tenniel’s illustrations. Over the next century and a half, various editions of Alice and its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, have been produced, with illustrations from the likes of Arthur Rackham, Mervyn Peake and Salvador Dali. The exhibition focuses mainly on illustrated editions of the books, but it also includes merchandise produced at the time (Carroll was pretty savvy about such things) and more recently. A must-see for all Alice fans.