Wednesday, 1 July 2015




Yesterday I stopped by the British Library to explore the stacks and see the special exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Prior to handing over my timed entry ticket for the exhibit I wandered through the library’s free, permanent exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery where they display on rotation a selection of the library’s impressive collection. I was in a state of awe as I walked through the single room gallery which held such treasures as the Gutenberg bible, original Mozart song sheets, a penned copy of a Sherlock Holmes story, handwritten Beatles lyrics and so much more! After seeing this selection of goodies the bar was set pretty high for the Magna Carta exhibit.

Colour drawing of medieval scene. Knights standing around table while king signs document.
King John signing Magna Carta, 1215
Walking into the darkened exhibition space, one is greeted with a short, introductory video that informs on the background of the Magna Carta document and its lasting legacy. Cleverly but to the obvious frustration of a number of visitors, the Library does not reveal the famed document until the very end of the exhibit. The lead up to the actual artifact informs on the period that the document was created, alterations to its composition, the various revivals of the work, and its impact worldwide (with a focus on the United States and France).

The majority of the artifacts on display in the exhibit are textual, for example, one such artifact showcased is the 14th c. manuscript “Statutes of England”. The written artifacts are complimented by a small collection of non-text artifacts, including a recreation of King John’s tomb and a modern day puzzle depicting the signing of the Magna Carta. 

Upon entering the final exhibition gallery one is confronted by two poster-sized documents, safely nestled behind glass. My initial impression upon entering the room was disappointment. However, upon further reflection my opinion has changed. I realize now that my first reaction came from the stimulation of seeing so many historical pieces and being presented with such a buildup. One almost expects to enter a room to see a document the length of the Dead Sea Scrolls, highlighted with digital projections of the text on all of the walls.

The exhibition presents an incredible collection of textual artifacts. The Library uses a simple design approach, which does not detract from the artifacts but rather compliments them. In the age of the blockbuster exhibition, sometimes one forgets how effective an exhibit can be without the added glitz. The texts themselves are beautiful pieces and should not upstaged.

Yellowed manuscript, many lines of text, not legible (photo is not a close up).
1 of 4 Magna Carta Manuscripts in existence
Who’s looking forward to Canada’s Magna Carta exhibit (coming to Fort York in October)? I will definitely be comparing and contrasting!

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