2016 at the British Library: major exhibitions on Shakespeare and 20th century maps, and Kenneth Williams’ archive joins the collections

Curator Kathryn Johnson from the British Library examines the Kenneth Williams archive (Photo by Elizabeth Hunter)

Today we reveal the British Library’s cultural highlights for the year ahead, including:

  • Shakespeare in Ten Acts, an exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death revealing ten performances that have made Shakespeare the cultural icon he is today
  • A major exhibition exploring the tumultuous history of the 20th century through maps
  • Announced today: the acquisition of the personal letters and diaries of actor, broadcaster and raconteur Kenneth Williams
  • An exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of Punk
  • Shakespeare-related treasures and material from 20th century writers, including Angela Carter, TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf, to be made available online for the first time on our Discovering Literature website
Shakespeare in Ten Acts

(15 April – 6 September 2016)
To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this major exhibition seeks to cast new light on how Shakespeare became the cultural icon he is today through ten key performances.

A vivid insight into Shakespeare’s character comes via a bawdy piece of Elizabethan gossip courtesy of the diary of a law student named John Manningham. In the entry dated 13 March 1602, which will go on display for the first time, Manningham recounts a story about Shakespeare and his friend, the famous actor of his day Richard Burbage, in which Shakespeare steals his friend’s invitation to visit a female fan after Burbage’s performance in Richard III at the Globe, sending back the message ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard the 3.’

This unique manuscript will be displayed alongside other stand-out items from the British Library’s collections including the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare’s hand, one of only six authentic Shakespeare signatures, and rare printed editions including the First Folio, as well as a range of film, paintings, photographs, costumes and props.

Today we also reveal two theatre playbills following the career of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello in 1825 and the focus of one of the ten key performances explored in the Library’s exhibition. Dated at either side of the abolition of slavery, the two playbills demonstrate the lengths to which he went to promote himself and challenge perceptions in an era when racist views were the norm.

Telling a story of struggles, set-backs and sea-changes, Shakespeare in Ten Acts will explore the changing nature of Shakespeare’s reputation - from the ‘bardolatry’ typical of the Romantic era, to well-known Shakespeare detractors like Tolstoy - ultimately proving that his course never did run smooth.

The British Library is joining forces with the BBC to build a digital picture of the explosion in the performance of Shakespeare’s plays from the first performances to the present day as part of Shakespeare on Tour. The project will bring together new academic research with stories of Shakespeare performances told through original playbills from the late 18th century onwards, held in the British Library’s collections. 

The British Library is also working with the Library of Birmingham on a new Shakespeare exhibition in their public library space to launch on 22 April 2016. Further details will be announced next year.

20th Century through Maps
(4 November – 1 Mar 2017)
The British Library’s major Autumn exhibition will explore the tumultuous history of the 20th century through maps, drawing on powerful, intriguing and surprising examples from the British Library’s world-class cartography collections and beyond.

Today we reveal a selection of Ministry of Defence maps being put on public display for the first time, which were used as part of official college exams in the 1950s and 1960s. These fascinating maps show fictional scenarios such as a nuclear explosion fall-out in Scotland and southern England reimagined as a battlefield, reflecting the political uncertainties of the 20th century.

Also revealed today is a little-known map of the USA produced by the Nazi government in 1940 showing percentages of first and second generation immigrants from middle and western Europe. Designed to enable officials in Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry to see at a glance where there were significant concentrations of people with German-Austrian backgrounds – and thus potential supporters - the map is evidence of the power of cartography during the 20th century as devices which were able to exercise considerable influence through their appearance of scientific objectivity.

The exhibition will also uncover the fascinating story of how maps left the hands of the few and became everyday objects for the first time in the 20th century. From the London A-Z, created out of a need for newcomers to navigate the city conveniently thanks to a wave of mass immigration in the early 20th century, to lesser-known political pocket atlases like the ‘Plebs Atlas’ also revealed today, and the huge influence of maps like Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood which introduced millions of children to the concept of cartography for the first time.

Acquisition: Kenneth Williams’ personal diaries and letters
The British Library is delighted to announce the acquisition of the personal archive of Kenneth Williams, including 43 personal diaries and approximately 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988.

Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) was best-known as the star of the Carry On films, ‘Just a Minute’ and ‘Round the Horne’, but he was also a raconteur of verve and charm, and appeared to substantial acclaim in a number of stage roles, from frothy revue to the black comedy of Joe Orton. He used the diaries he kept for more than 40 years as a half-serious threat to his friends (“You’ll be in my diary!” was a favourite saying whenever someone annoyed him), but kept the contents almost completely to himself. 

The archive has been acquired by the British Library from Paul Richardson, Kenneth’s friend and neighbour, to whom he left his entire estate.

Paul Richardson commented:

“I am delighted that the Kenneth Williams' diaries and letters are now at the British Library. Knowing Kenneth for so many years I know he would have been pleased and honoured. He was a great admirer of the British Library and a regular visitor. I feel this is the perfect place for his diaries and letters to be, preserved for the future and to be appreciated by the public and scholars.”

Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Theatrical Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library said:

“In the pages of the diaries Williams is instantly recognisable as the acerbic and fastidious character well known to several generations but also, more surprisingly, is shown to be a reflective and poignant observer.

It is estimated that 85% of the newly-acquired archive is unpublished material never before seen by researchers, and the archive will be of huge interest to social historians of post war Britain, detailing the experience of a gay man both before and after the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, alongside the mundane details of everyday life in London. The diaries and letters also record the actor’s experience of the dying days of the repertory theatre system and the growth of modern celebrity culture, something he seemed both to love and loathe.” 

This archive is a significant addition to the Library’s existing collections of contemporary archives, among them material relating to Williams’s friends and contemporaries, including Peter Nichols and Joe Orton, as well as the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays Collection.

Material will be available to researchers in the Library’s Reading Rooms from March 2016. The 1950 edition of the diary, as well as a letter from the archive, will be on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, from next week onwards.

Selected extracts from the Kenneth Williams diaries and letters are available on request from the press office (details below).

Punk 1976-78
(May to September 2016)
Starting with the impact of the Sex Pistols in 1976, this exhibition will explore punk’s early days in the capital and reveal how its remarkable influence spread across music, fashion, print and graphic styles nationwide. Showcasing a range of fanzines, flyers, recordings and record sleeves from the British Library’s collections alongside rare material from the Jon Savage Archive at Liverpool John Moores University, the exhibition will celebrate the enduring influence of punk as a radical musical, artistic and political movement.

This exhibition is part of Punk London, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of this unique and exciting musical phenomenon.

Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and 20th century writers
In 2016 the British Library is launching the next two phases of Discovering Literature, an educational resource that provides unprecedented access to the Library’s literary and historical treasures. Aimed at A Level students, teachers, undergraduates and lovers of literature, the site aims to enhance the study and enjoyment of English literature and has received 1.2 million unique visitors since launching last year. The Library will continue to add to the site until it covers the entire canon of English literature from Beowulf to the present day.

In March 2016 the British Library will put over 300 Shakespeare-related treasures from its collections online as part of a new Shakespeare phase of Discovering Literature. The project will explore 15 of Shakespeare’s plays within their social, political and cultural context. The site will include rare early modern printed texts, unique contemporary manuscripts, annotated play scripts, playbills, photographs and paintings.

20th Century writers
In early summer 2016, the British Library will publish over 300 items from its collections of 20th century literature, from writers including Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot and Angela Carter. The material includes original manuscript drafts, letters, journals, newspapers, magazines, illustrations and photographs, and will bring the worlds of these writers to life for a new generation.

The Shakespeare and the 20th century phases of Discovering Literature will include a range of articles by leading scholars, performers, curators and teachers, as well as short documentary films and teachers’ notes. 

Imagining Don Quixote
(19 January – 22 May 2016)
Cervantes’ Don Quixote is considered one of the most influential works of literature. Published in Spain in two parts (1605, 1615), it is said to be, after the Bible, the world’s most frequently illustrated book. In this display to mark the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death in 1616, Imagining Don Quixote will take four key episodes in the novel and explore how they have been interpreted and visualized over time.

Highlights will include some of the earliest illustrated editions, the landmark London edition (in Spanish) of 1738, two editions with designs by Salvador Dalí, and two contrasted contemporary graphic versions.

Tang Xianzu Treasures display
(April 2016)
Tang Xianzu is one of the greatest playwrights of the Chinese tradition. He lived and worked under the Shenzong reign of the Ming dynasty and, like Cervantes and Shakespeare, died in 1616. In 2016, a year where the Library commemorates the deaths of these three great literary and theatrical figures, a selection of woodblock printed editions from his work will be going on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Among the items on display will be illustrated editions of Tang’s masterpiece, The Peony Pavilion, an opera which was performed for the first time in 1598 and is still one of the most loved and famous Chinese traditional operas today.

Utopia at the British Library
(24 May – 2 October 2016)
A free display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery will explore the history of Utopia, featuring an original first edition of the text and handwritten letters by Thomas More. The Library will also present talks and discussions exploring the genesis of Thomas More’s Utopia, and the subsequent development of Utopian thinking over 500 years, to the present and beyond.

This exhibition is part of Utopia 16, a year-long programme of events led by Somerset House celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Utopia. 


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Notes to Editors

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

Notes to editors

Discovering Literature has been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE, the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, Mark Pigott KBE OBE, Evalyn Lee, Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin.

For more information:

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

Evenings and weekends:
+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

Press Office contacts

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