The evolution of writing from hieroglyphs to emojis: Writing: Making Your Mark opens at the British Library

Writing - Making Your Mark at the British Library, oldest item in the British Library (c) Tony Antoniou
  • Writing: Making Your Mark is a landmark British Library exhibition, which spans 5,000 years worldwide, exploring one of humankind’s greatest achievements – the act of writing
  • From carved stone inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and early printed works to beautiful calligraphy, iconic fonts and emojis, Writing: Making Your Mark will deconstruct the act of writing and consider its future in the digital age
  • Family-focused pop-up displays will simultaneously launch in over 20 partner libraries around the UK through the Living Knowledge Network, enabling visitors to engage in a nationwide conversation on the origins, means and future of writing
  • The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of events, including talks, performances and walking tours, and a richly-illustrated book celebrating the act of writing from across the globe

Writing: Making Your Mark (26 April – 27 August 2019) is a landmark British Library exhibition, which spans 5,000 years across the globe, exploring one of humankind’s greatest achievements – the act of writing.  

Beginning with the origins of writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and the Americas, the exhibition will chart the evolution of writing through technology and innovation, exploring more than 40 different writing systems, from the 5,000 year old Jemdet Nasr clay tablet with very early cuneiform to digital typefaces and emojis.

Featuring an ancient wax tablet with a schoolchild’s homework from 100-199AD and Florence Nightingale’s diary alongside a 10th-century psalter and a 60,000-strong petition from 1905 protesting against the first partition of Bengal, Writing: Making Your Mark will highlight how writing can be personal, functional, beautiful or political and will challenge our preconceptions of what writing is through examples of writing as art, expression and instruction.

With many items going on display for the first time, exhibition highlights include:

  • 3,600 year old Ancient Egyptian limestone monument covered in hieroglyphs, which contains a hymn to the god of the netherworld, Osiris, and was recently discovered to be the oldest item in the British Library
  • The world’s earliest complete dated printed book, the woodblock-printed Diamond Sutra from Dunhuang, China, 11 May 868 AD
  • One of the earliest surviving examples of the first stages of the alphabet we use today, carved into the base of the Serabit Sphinx from Sinai, 1800 BC on loan from the British Museum
  • A 2.19 metre high limestone monument covered in Maya hieroglyphs from Belize (Central America), 647 AD going on display for the first time, on loan from the British Museum
  • William Caxton’s first printing of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales from 1476-77, which is the earliest substantial book printed in Britain
  • A 2.44 metre-long papyrus scroll recording the sale of property in Italy from 572 AD, which is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library and possibly one of the largest to survive from Ancient and Medieval Europe
  • Papal indulgence, possibly the earliest piece of printing with movable type in Europe, printed by Johannes Gutenberg
  • Poet Alfred Tennyson’s quill, discarded after the nib became bent, on loan from the Museum of Writing

The exhibition will simultaneously launch in over 20 partner libraries around the UK, through the Living Knowledge Network.  From Belfast and Norwich to Exeter and Edinburgh, the family-focused pop-up displays will encourage libraries to respond to the themes of the exhibition with material from their own archives as well as through local events programmes, enabling visitors to engage in a nationwide conversation on the origins, means and future of writing. 

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

‘From street signs to social media, writing surrounds us in the modern world and reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it around the globe.  In the 5,000 years since speech was first turned into symbol, written communication has stimulated innovations as varied as the printing press and smart phones.  Today, however, new technologies allow us to replace written words with pictures, videos and voice recordings. Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library asks what the future holds for writing and how we will choose to make our mark in the decades to come.’

There will be a series of events inspired by the exhibition, featuring leading experts exploring everything from hieroglyphics and alphabets to typography and tattoos.  A  Late at the Library sponsored by Montblanc will be a ‘lettering party’ soundtracked by DJs will feature famous names from the early 1980s New York subway graffiti scene, Martha Cooper and Lady Pink, and the Library will be marking World Emoji Day on 17 July. There will also be free school workshops, a range of inspiring adult courses including masterclasses on Japanese calligraphy and Ancient Greek, audio-description tours for visitors who are blind or partially-sighted and the Library’s first autism-friendly private view of the exhibition. 

 

Writing: Making Your Mark is accompanied by a Family Trail brochure, web space exploring the history of writing and a richly-illustrated book celebrating the act of writing from across the globe, available in hardback and paperback from the British Library shop and all good bookstores.


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Notes to Editors

#MakingYourMark

Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library has been curated by Adrian S. Edwards (Head of Printed Heritage Collections), Peter Toth (Curator of Ancient Manuscripts), Emma Harrison (Curator of Chinese Collections) and Michael Erdman (Curator of Turkish & Turkic Collections) at the British Library. 

British Library opening hours are here and ticket prices are as follows:

Full Price: £14.00

Senior 60+: £12.00

Student / Registered Unemployed / Disabled / National Art Pass / Child 12-17: £7.00

National Art Pass Senior: £6.00

Members / Child 11 and Under: £0.00

Group visits (10 people or more) will receive a 10% discount on their ticket price and introductory talks are available. Make a day of it with up to 20% off in our on-site restaurant and cafés or an afternoon tea in our Terrace Restaurant or Piazza’s Last Word Café.   For more information, please visit www.bl.uk/groups

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, BCP Council (Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole), 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

Natasha Naidoo
The British Library
t: +44 (0)20 7412 7110
e: natasha.naidoo@bl.uk

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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.