2019 at the British Library: major exhibitions on the act of writing and Buddhism; Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks to be displayed together in the UK for the first time to mark 500 years since his death

Schoolchild’s homework in Greek on a wax tablet, Egypt, 2nd century AD (c) British Library

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

  • A selection of notes and drawings from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, brought together in the UK for the first time since Leonardo owned them and including an exhibit of the Codex Leicester for the first time in Britain since it was purchased by Bill Gates in 1994
  • A landmark exhibition spanning five millennia and five continents exploring one of humankind’s greatest achievements – the act of writing
  • The Library’s winter season of events featuring David Sedaris, Warsan Shire, Philip Pullman, Helen Fielding, David Olusoga and Jacqueline Wilson, amongst many others
  • A major exhibition considering the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, the enduring iconography of Buddha and what it means to be Buddhist today

Tickets for all British Library 2019 exhibitions and January to March 2019 events are now available to purchase at www.bl.uk/whats-on.


Writing: Making Your Mark (26 April – 27 August 2019)

In spring 2019, the British Library will be opening Writing: Making Your Mark, a landmark exhibition spanning five millennia and five continents, exploring one of humankind’s greatest achievements – the act of writing.  

Beginning with the origins of writing in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Americas, the exhibition will explore the many manifestations, purposes and forms of writing, demonstrating how writing has continually enabled human progress and questioning the role it plays in an increasingly digital world.

From an ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters to a Chinese typewriter from the 1970s, Writing: Making Your Mark will showcase over 30 different writing systems to reveal that every mark made – whether on paper or on a screen – is the continuation of a 5,000 year story and is a step towards determining how writing will be used in the future.

Featuring renowned texts, including Caxton’s 1476-7 printing of the Canterbury Tales, the first book printed in England, alongside works from the hands of little-known individuals, such as a 60,000-strong Bengali petition from 1905, the exhibition will explore writing as personal, functional, beautiful and political.

Adrian Edwards, lead curator of Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library, said:

‘From hieroglyph to emoji and clay tablet to digital, Writing: Making Your Mark will examine the act of writing by charting its evolution through technology and innovation. It will demonstrate how writing is so much more than words on the page – it is how we communicate across time and space, how we express ourselves, and how we lay down our collective memory.’

To coincide with Writing: Making Your Mark launching at the British Library, family focused exhibition panel displays will simultaneously open in over 20 partner libraries around the UK, through the Living Knowledge Network.  The Living Knowledge Network is an innovative partnership, in collaboration with the National Library of Scotland and the National Library of Wales, which shares resources, skills and ideas, promoting the enduring values of libraries in the twenty-first century and reinforcing the idea of the library as a transformative and accessible public asset.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June – 8 September 2019)

Marking 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion will reveal how Leonardo believed motion to be the ‘cause of all life’. 

Known first and foremost as an artist, Leonardo’s notebooks reveal his close observations, detailed recording and systematic analysis of movement in nature, with a particular emphasis on water in motion and the exhibition will explore how this relates to his work as an artist and inventor.

Today we are delighted to announce that this exhibition will be the first time a selection of notes and drawings from the Codex Arundel, owned by the British Library, the Codex Forster, owned by the V&A, and the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates, will be displayed together in the UK, as well as the first time the Codex Leicester will be exhibited in Britain since it was purchased by Bill Gates in 1994.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion has been curated by Dr Juliana Barone (Associated Curator) from Birkbeck College, University of London and British Library curators Dr Andrea Clarke and Stephen Parkin.

Dr Andrea Clarke, British Library curator of Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, said:

‘Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks show him to be an extraordinarily dynamic thinker who was able to make connections between multiple phenomena and disciplines and we are thrilled that this exhibition will be a unique opportunity to show his manuscripts, which were all once owned by British collectors, together for the first time.’

Dr Juliana Barone, Associate Curator of Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, from Birkbeck College, University of London, said:

'This exhibition offers crucial evidence as to how Leonardo thought on paper and, as a scientist and artist, attempted to understand the natural world in terms of its principles in order to re-create nature. Through a selection of studies ranging from water flow to geometry, mechanics, astronomy and the human body in motion, the visitor is enabled to sense the depth and richness of Leonardo’s creative mind as well as exceptional ability as a draughtsman in conveying visual knowledge'.

Buddhism (25 October 2019 – 25 February 2020)

In autumn 2019, the British Library will open a major exhibition on Buddhism, which will explore the roots, philosophy and contemporary relevance of one of the world’s major religions, from its beginnings in north India in the 6th century BC to having aroundits estimated one billion followers across the world today.

Featuring rare and colourful scrolls, painted wall hangings and folding books, the exhibition will highlight the outstanding art contained within Buddhist manuscripts and early printed works by shining a light on the British Library’s lesser-known treasures from across the world, reaching far beyond a UK audience.

From sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves and gold to silk scrolls of major Sutras, Buddhism was pivotal in developing writing and printing techniques to transmit ideas and educate people across Asia.

Buddhism will highlight the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, examine the enduring iconography of Buddha and consider what it means to be Buddhist today.

Jana Igunma, lead curator of Buddhism at the British Library, said:

‘Buddhism continues to inspire diverse artistic expression and lifestyles and, with the concept of mindfulness becoming mainstream, we are excited to host the British Library’s largest ever display of Buddhist collections, shining a light on the Library’s lesser-known treasures from across the world.’

Events programme

The British Library has launched its next season of events from January to March 2019 with priority booking available for Members and tickets on general sale from 7 December 2018.

Event highlights include:

  • Celebrated authors Philip Pullman, Salley Vickers and Jacqueline Wilson talking about their passionate commitment to libraries
  • A Diaries and Memoirs season featuring David Sedaris, Helen Fielding, Viv Albertine, Tracey Thorn, Lucy Mangan and Rufus Hound presenting a special edition of the BBC Radio 4 comedy show ‘My Teenage Diary’
  • Events inspired by British Library exhibitions and displays, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams discussing the Anglo-Saxons, Antonia Fraser and Michael Billington reflecting on Harold Pinter’s life and international comics expert Paul Gravett exploring cats in graphic novels
  • A focus on European literature by historian Ian Kershaw, German-Swiss poet Nora Gomringer and the six shortlisted authors and translators of the EBRD Literature Prize 2019
  • The Chortle Comedy Book Festival featuring comedian Alex Horne, The Guilty Feminist’s Deborah Frances-White and Adam Kay, former medic and bestselling author of This Is Going To Hurt

The full programme of winter events can be found on the British Library’s What’s On pages or downloaded from here.

Later in 2019 the British Library will also host a Food Season and Season of Sound, as well as international festivals, such as Jaipur Literature Festival, Shubbak Festival and Africa Writes.

Imaginary Cities (5 April – 14 July 2019)

Imaginary Cities is a new exhibition by the British-American artist Michael Takeo Magruder that has been specially commissioned for the British Library’s Entrance Hall Gallery. The free display will explore the changing nature of archives and collections in the Digital Age, highlighting how the Library is not simply a repository of knowledge, but a storehouse of creative potential that is constantly sparking exciting ideas and generating new avenues for culture.

Comprised of four technology-based art installations, the exhibition has been created using images and metadata of pre-20th century urban maps drawn from the Library’s 1-Million Images from Scanned Books collection on Flickr Commons. The artist has remixed and transformed these historical materials into fantastical cityscapes for the Information Age, blending leading-edge digital technologies and systems with traditional analogue materials and processes.

Michael Takeo Magruder is an internationally recognised and award-winning visual artist whose projects have been showcased in over 275 exhibitions in 35 countries. The exhibition will be accompanied by the Library’s first Algorave where real-time computer coding is mixed with live music and visuals.

Harold Pinter: A Line, a Word, an Image (11 January – 17 March 2019)

Ten years on from the death of Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, this free display in the British Library’s Second Floor Gallery will take us back to the beginning of his playwriting career.  From the early prose pieces that influenced his dramatic writing to his final play Celebration, reproductions of his manuscripts and archival photographs offer a glimpse into Pinter’s creative process. 

We are delighted that Harold Pinter’s The Pres and an Officer sketch, which was discovered by his wife Lady Antonia Fraser last year when she turned the page of one of his old yellow legal pads to see her husband’s writing, has been donated to the British Library.  The sketch will be added to the literary archive of Harold Pinter, which comprises over one hundred and fifty boxes of manuscripts, scrapbooks, letters, photographs, programmes, and emails and was acquired by the Library in 2007.

The New Londoners (22 March – 7 July 2019)

The British Library has acquired a collection of photographs by award-winning British photographer Chris Steele-Perkins and will be displaying a selection of them in a free display in the Library’s Second Floor Gallery. 

The New Londoners will feature photographs from Steele-Perkins’ project to photograph families from every country in the world (almost 200 by UN recognition), in their homes in London.  The project will come to a close in January 2019, featuring 163 families living in London which accounts for 187 countries. The exhibition will be the first time an edit of the completed project will be on public display.  Steele-Perkins describes his work as ‘a record of a new London, a new Britain and a celebration of the fabulous cultural richness of London’. 

Treasures Gallery

Next year in the free permanent The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library we will be hosting Friendship Before Facebook (26 February – 12 May 2019), which will look at how friends were selected, collected and put on display before the digital era through pocket-sized friendship albums made between the 16th and 19th centuries.  There will also be displays on the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, following the Library’s acquisition of the archive in 2015, and the Women’s World Cup later in the year.

Discovering Sacred Texts

Next autumn we will be launching a new online learning resource designed for students and teachers as well as lifelong learners, which will allow visitors to explore the world’s major faiths through our collections of sacred texts.   

Embracing the six most-practised faiths in the UK – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism – as well as a host of other faiths, Discovering Sacred Texts will features articles written by academics and faith leaders, as well as video content and teachers’ resources.

The free web space will offer visitors the opportunity to explore the richness and diversity of the world’s great faiths, and learn about the deep connections and common threads that link them.

The project has been generously supported by Dangoor Education since its inception and by Allchurches Trust, alongside other funders.


Notes to Editors

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.

The British Library’s Membership scheme is a way for people to support the work of the British Library, while also gaining access to benefits including: unlimited free access to exhibitions, access to the exclusive Members’ Room (with a guest), access to the Knowledge Centre Bar (with up to three guests), 20% discount in British Library restaurants and cafés, 20% discount in our Shops, priority booking for events, along with four free tickets to British Library events. Membership is available at a range of prices and full details are available at www.bl.uk.  Membership is separate from access to our Reading Rooms, which is available to anyone holding a British Library Reader Pass and which remains free.

The British Library's partners in the Living Knowledge Network are: Birmingham City Council, Bournemouth Borough Council, Edinburgh Council, Libraries Unlimited, Glasgow Life, Kirklees Council, Suffolk's Libraries Industrial and Provident Society (IPS), Leeds City Council, Liverpool City Council, Manchester City Council, Newcastle City Council, The Preston Harris Library, National Library of Scotland, National Library of Wales, First for Wellbeing, Norfolk County Council, Northern Ireland Library Authorities, Portsmouth City Council, Reading Borough Council, Sheffield City Council, Wakefield Council, Middlesbrough Council and Hull City Council.


For more information:

Alice Carter
The British Library
t: +44 (0)20 7412 7126
e: alice.carter@bl.uk

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

Press Office contacts

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.