2015 at the British Library: The largest ever Magna Carta exhibition, a journey through a millennium of West African history, a new art installation by Cornelia Parker, and over 100 unseen Harold Pinter letters join the collections

Today we provide a special preview of the British Library’s cultural highlights of 2015, including:

  • The largest ever Magna Carta exhibition to mark the iconic document’s 800th anniversary
  • A major exhibition exploring the culture and heritage of West Africa
  • Announced today: over 100 unseen letters written by a young Harold Pinter are acquired by the Library
  • Cornelia Parker reveals a sneak preview of her Wikipedia-inspired art installation being exhibited at the Library next Spring
  • A celebration of Alice in Wonderland’s 150th birthday
  • Magna Carta: My Digital Rights – Do we need a Bill of Rights for the internet?

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

(13 Mar to 1 Sept 2015)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, sponsored by the global law firm Linklaters, will be the world’s largest exhibition to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. 

Today we’re revealing a little-known medieval poem from our collections containing the earliest independent account of what happened at Runnymede between King John and the Barons when the Magna Carta was agreed.

It was written in the ‘Melrose Chronicle’, a record of events composed by the monks of Melrose Abbey in Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries.  It begins: “A new state of things begun in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wishes to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king….”

We’re also releasing details of a lesser-known period in Magna Carta’s history, via a letter which will go on display in our exhibition next year on loan from The National Archives UK. Written by a civil servant in 1947, it details a decision by British officials not to endorse the plan to celebrate a ‘Magna Carta Day’ in the Commonwealth countries, for fear it may inspire “uncritical enthusiasm” for Magna Carta among “ill-disposed colonial politicians” in their struggle to acquire greater freedom for their peoples.

These two exhibits, taken from opposite ends of eight centuries of history, demonstrate the extraordinary transformation of Magna Carta from medieval peace treaty to globally-recognised symbol of liberty, and indicate how its power has been used, and abused through the course of its existence. Both the poem and the letter will go on display for the first time in our exhibition next year.

As well as showcasing the British Library’s own world-class collections, this once-in-a-lifetime show will also bring together a star line-up of loans, including original copies of Thomas Jefferson’s  handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights (Delaware ratification) on loan from The New York Public Library and the US National Archives respectively. These loans are sponsored by White & Case law firm.

As well as staging this exhibition, the British Library will run a significant programme of activities and events around Magna Carta: a unification event in February to bring the four original manuscripts together (also sponsored by Linklaters), a new learning website, and we will be working closely with the BBC’s ‘Taking Liberties’ season and the Magna Carta 800th committee to commemorate the anniversary.

West Africa, a major exhibition in Autumn 2015

(16 Oct 2015 – 16 Feb 2016)

In a new exhibition running in Autumn 2015, the British Library will celebrate the rich cultural and literary heritage of West Africa.

This ambitious show will explore literature, faith, politics and music from Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and many other countries in the region. It will showcase West Africa’s long literary heritage, and its centuries-old oral traditions, communicated through story-telling, music and sound.

The exhibition will reference a millennium of history - from the great empires of the Middle Ages through colonialism, resistance and independence, to modern day life and culture.

We’ll be bringing together political pamphlets, protest songs, historic film and sound recordings, woven and printed textiles and exquisite manuscripts, and celebrating contemporary writers and thinkers from West Africa, including the Nobel-prize winning writer Wole Soyinka and musician and activist Fela Kuti.

Today we’re revealing an exciting exhibit which will go on rare display in the British Library’s show next year, an annotated manuscript for a poem written by Wole Soyinka.  The manuscript, covered in corrections, rewritings and doodles by the writer, contains the draft of his poem ‘Idanre’, inspired by a ‘deep mythological experience’ during a night walking in the hills of his home, Nigeria.

Historian, writer and presenter of ‘Lost Kingdoms of Africa’, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, is our guest consultant for this exhibition, alongside British Library curators Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace.

African literature will be celebrated at the Library throughout 2015. In March we’ll host The Folio Prize Fiction Festival’, which will be opened by the internationally acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and in August we’ll host the annual literary festival dedicated to African literature, ‘Africa Writes’, with the Royal African Society.

Acquisition: Harold Pinter’s early letters

The Library has acquired a collection of over 100 unseen letters of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, revealing the desires and frustrations of the young aspiring writer during his formative years.

Written to his childhood friends Henry Woolf and Mick Goldstein in Hackney when Pinter was aged 18-30, the letters candidly discuss his early play-writing, including the development of what later became one of his most famous works, The Birthday Party, his annoyance at having to act when he was absorbed in writing (‘Playwriting just now has got me by the balls’), and his interest in a new unknown writer who was beginning to get attention at the time, Samuel Beckett.

Lady Antonia Fraser, widow of Harold Pinter said: “I am tremendously excited by these letters.   It was fascinating to read what the young Harold wrote.”

Henry Woolf, Harold’s friend, commented: “For over sixty years Harold Pinter sent me letters bursting with energy and passionate concern, crammed with laughter too when he felt larky. I am so glad the British Library keeps them now for all the world to see.”

The letters are from a relatively undocumented period of Pinter’s life and have been acquired from Henry Woolf and Mick Goldstein, part of the close-knit ‘Hackney gang’ Pinter remained lifelong friends with. They form an important addition to the Library’s existing Harold Pinter archive, acquired in 2007, and join the Library’s unparalleled collections of contemporary British writers, including the personal archives of Hanif Kureishi, JG Ballard, Wendy Cope, Ted Hughes and Graham Swift.

The new material is available to researchers via the Library’s Reading Rooms from today. One of the letters from the new collection will also be on public display in the Library’s permanent exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, from 1 December onwards.

Cornelia Parker: Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

15 May to 24 July 2015

Free exhibition in the front hall gallery

Today we announce a new commission by the leading British artist Cornelia Parker, which responds to the legacy of Magna Carta in the digital era.

At almost 13 metres long and 1.5 metres wide, Magna Carta (An Embroidery) will replicate the Magna Carta’s Wikipedia article as it appeared in its entirety on the 799th anniversary in 2014.

Stitched by over 200 people, from prisoners, lawyers and civil rights campaigners to barons and MPs, the commission aims to unpick Magna Carta’s rich history by collaborating with groups and individuals who have been associated with and affected by the document since it was first drawn up in 1215.

“This is a snapshot of where the debate about Magna Carta is right now,” says Cornelia Parker. “Echoing the communal activity that resulted in the Bayeux Tapestry, but on this occasion placing more emphasis on the word rather than the image, I want to create an artwork that is a contemporary interpretation of Magna Carta to sit alongside the British Library’s extraordinary show.”

The embroidery will be unveiled in a free exhibition in the British Library’s front hall on 15 May 2015 and will remain on display until 24 July 2015.

Magna Carta: My Digital Rights

A schools programme launching February 2015

Do we need an equivalent of Magna Carta or a new Bill of Rights to protect the future of the internet?

Bridging the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web and 800 years of Magna Carta, the British Library is launching a national schools programme aiming to engage young people in a discussion about freedoms, via the topic of their rights and responsibilities online.

‘Magna Carta: My Digital Rights’ will invite young people to debate questions affecting their digital world, such as privacy, trolling, surveillance and online bullying, bringing these very real arguments over free speech, and liberties, very sharply into the 21st century.

We’re thrilled to announce that BBC Radio 1 will be working in collaboration with the British Library to get the word out about this project to their millions of listeners.

The Library is also working in partnership with the British Council, and alongside Sir Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation and the South Bank Centre.

The results of this call-to-arms will be unveiled later in 2015 as part of the celebrations happening around 15 June, the date of the 800th anniversary.

150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland

Autumn 2015 – Spring 2016

Free exhibition in the Entrance Hall

As part of the world-wide celebrations marking Alice in Wonderland’s 150th birthday next year, we are delighted to announce that the iconic manuscript and one of the best-loved treasures in the Library, ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’, will go on major display in the US.

The manuscript, written and illustrated by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), was bought by an American dealer at auction in 1928, but then presented back to the UK in 1948 in recognition of the part Britain played in the Second World War, making this trip back to the US particularly significant.

The manuscript will star in exhibitions at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York and The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia which will be accompanied by a series of events and celebrations.

On the manuscript’s return the Library will mark the anniversary with our own free exhibition exploring how Alice has been adapted and appropriated by successive generations, and the enduring influence of the original visions.

Since the first publication of the story in 1865, we have seen Alice inspire the likes of Walt Disney, Salvador Dali, Mervyn Peake and even Apple Inc, in the form of the company’s only ever video game, Through the Looking Glass, which was made in 1984.

We’ll also be bringing Alice firmly into the 21st century, via collaboration with the UK’s cultural centre for gaming, GameCity in Nottingham.

In December 2014 we’re launching ‘Alice’s Adventures Off the Map’,  a competition which challenges higher education students to create new videogames inspired by those iconic original Alice manuscripts and the British Library’s map, sound and book collections. The results will be unveiled in Autumn 2015, to coincide with the opening of the Library’s Alice exhibition.

Discovering Literature: 20th Century writers

November 2015

The British Library will enhance its landmark Discovering Literature website in November 2015, with a new treasure trove of material from its collections of 20th century literature. Original manuscripts, letters, photographs and other materials from writers including Harold Pinter, T S Eliot, Angela Carter, James Joyce and many more will digitised and made available on the site, bringing the worlds of these writers to life for a new generation of students and lovers of literature.

This second phase of the site is funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation and a private donor.

Discovering Literature launched in May 2014 with over 1000 digitised literary treasures relating to Romantic and Victorian authors, including Blake, Austen, Shelley, Keats and many more. Since launch the site has had over 300,000 unique visits.

The British Library will continue to add to the resource until it covers the entire canon of English literature from Beowulf up to the present day.  

Anthony Trollope Treasures display

3 Mar – 7 Jun 2015

2015 is the bicentenary of the birth of the prolific 19th century author, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). To mark the occasion the Library is mounting a display in its permanent gallery space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, which will focus on Trollope’s approach to authorship and his ‘rules’ for novel writing, as laid down in his autobiography.

The display will feature the Library’s manuscript copy of Trollope’s autobiography, alongside other items from his archive and personal effects.  More details will be available nearer the time of the display, which will run from March next year.


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Notes to Editors

More information about exhibitions and events is available on our website at www.bl.uk/whatson

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) has been commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in partnership with the British Libra and in association with the Embroiderers’ Guild, Fine Cell Work, Hand & Lock and the Royal School of Needlework. The commission has been supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and by the John Fell OUP Research Fund.

Cornelia Parker (b. 1956, UK) is one of the most original and inventive artists working in Britain today. Her wide-ranging practice, mainly in sculpture and installation, touches on the fragility of human experience and is rich with visual and literary allusions. Cornelia’s work explores everything from ghosts and gravity to relics and the unconscious, transforming ordinary objects into compelling works of art. Her projects have included blowing up a shed, steamrolling musical instruments and sending meteorites back into space. These have involved her in collaborations with a whole series of unlikely institutions from the British Army and the Royal Mint to the funeral homes of São Paulo and the crown-of-thorn workshops in Bethlehem. She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1997, elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 2009 and awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2010.



For more information:

Sophie McIvor
The British Library
t: +44 (0)20 7412 7790
e: sophie.mcivor@bl.uk

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+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

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The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.

Linklaters LLP is a leading global law firm, supporting clients in achieving their strategies wherever they do business. We use our expertise and resources to help clients pursue opportunities and manage risk across emerging and developed markets around the world.
We believe that the rule of law is essential to human progress, underpinning economic activity and the development of society. Our work is to enable the world of business to benefit from the rule of law, and the integrity, fairness and certainty that it brings. We know that trust in us comes from giving principled advice, which means not just doing things right, but doing the right things – and helping our clients to do likewise.

The Magna Carta Trust’s 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee is charged by the Magna Carta Trust to co-ordinate activities, raise the profile of the anniversary and deliver a number of key national and international aspirations. These, and much else, can be found at www.magnacarta800th.com   For more information please contact Mark Gill, Executive Director, MC 800th Committee, at markgill@magnacarta800th.com.