2020 at the British Library: major exhibitions focusing on women who have made history and are shaping the future

Unfinished Business: Southall Black Sisters banner 'Hate is your Weapon' 2018 Credit: Designed by Shakila Taranum Maan and kindly loaned by Southall Black Sisters

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

  • Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights opening in Spring 2020, exploring how contemporary fights for gender equality and liberation in the UK have their roots in the long and complex history of women’s activism and campaigning
  • Elizabeth and Mary opening in Autumn 2020, the Library will use original documents to take a fresh and revealing look at the infamous story of two powerful queens, both with a right to the English throne: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

Major Exhibitions

Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights (24 April – 23 August 2020)

In spring 2020, the British Library presents Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights

This exciting exhibition will include items ranging from personal diaries, letters, banners and protest fashion, to subversive literature, film, music and art. It examines how women and their allies have fought for equality and imagined a better world with passion, imagination, humour and tenacity, and puts women’s voices at the heart of the exhibition.

Focusing on three themes – Body, Mind and Voice – each section will be introduced by contemporary activists, thinkers and leaders, featuring commissioned films and archive footage, sitting alongside British Library collection items and loans.

The exhibition will explore how women have campaigned for a fairer world, recognising how inequality is unequally experienced depending on class, race, gender expression and social position.

Polly Russell, lead curator of the exhibition says:

 “For centuries, women and their allies have fought for women’s rights in all areas of life. Their efforts have fundamentally changed the world we live in. They have made radical demands for legal rights in the workplace, for bodily autonomy, and a place in history, literature and art. This exhibition will bring together significant items from the Library’s collection, as well as from other institutions, to highlight not only the history of this struggle, but the ongoing efforts for equality, and demonstrate how women’s rights intersect with all parts of society. We hope visitors contribute their own voice and contemplate a fairer future for everyone in the UK and beyond.”

The accompanying events programme will offer a platform to discuss and debate these issues more broadly. The British Library’s Business & IP Centre, which provides free, dedicated expertise to aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners will also host a special event series focusing on the experiences of women entrepreneurs.

To coincide with the exhibition, pop-up displays will simultaneously open in over 20 partner libraries around the UK through the Living Knowledge Network.

Elizabeth and Mary (23 October 2020 – 21 February 2021)

Next autumn, the British Library will use original documents to take a fresh and revealing look at the extraordinary and fascinating story of two powerful queens, both with a right to the English throne: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Their letters and other 16th-century documents and objects will reveal the journey from amicable beginnings as two women politically adept at navigating the challenges of ruling in a male dominated world, to the rivalry which eventually tuned to distrust and betrayal.

‘Elizabeth and Mary’ will explore plots, espionage and treachery showcasing how this drama unfolded against the backdrop of an England and Scotland deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics, and a Europe torn apart by religious conflicts and civil wars.

The exhibition examines the rise of state surveillance and the development of a sophisticated intelligence network in a time of treason and rebellion when the fear of international conspiracy and foreign invasion was ever present. It will reveal how this was used by Elizabeth to trap and destroy her rival, Mary.

Andrea Clarke, lead curator of the exhibition, says:

“Elizabeth and Mary were two powerful women whose relationship dominated English and Scottish politics for thirty years from 1558. The struggle for control of the British Isles plays out in thrilling original documents that depict this turbulent relationship, and the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see fascinating letters written by the two queens themselves, who never actually met, as well as a host of other items such as paintings, textiles and jewellery.”

Wider Programming

Other exhibitions

Other exhibitions next year include Hebrew Manuscripts (20 March – 2 August 2020), which explores the history, culture and traditions of Jewish people from all corners of the world through the ages. Showcasing rarely-seen treasures from as far back as the 10th century, this exhibition spans a diverse geography from Europe and North Africa, through to the Middle East and China to explore the relationships between Jewish people and their neighbours in the communities that they lived in.

To mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the British Library will be celebrating the composer who has been recognised as one of the greatest and most influential composers of all time in an exhibition next Autumn, featuring rare items from the Library’s significant collection of printed and manuscript music. 

Around the Library

Events programme

The British Library has launched its next season of events from January to March 2020.

Event highlights include:

  • Talks and discussions celebrating and elevating women’s stories including events with businesswoman Gina Miller, American author Anne Tyler, writer and storyteller Amanda Edmiston, author and Fullbright Scholar Maaza Mengiste, as well as renowned academics Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Suhraiya Jivraj
  • The WISE Festival – celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science with scientific presentations, hands on activities and evening talks to hear from women about their experiences of working in the sciences
  • The Chortle Comedy Book Festival featuring Shappi Khorsandi, Jenny Eclair, Jen Brister, Adam Kay, Mark Thomas, Katy Brand and more
  • A day long celebration marking the 42nd anniversary of the very first radio broadcast of Douglas Adams’ classic space comedy The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
  • The UK Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, embarks on his A-Z Libraries Tour, and will give a reading at the Library during the first week
  • A Maps season, focusing on the history of maps and their future in a digital age.

Later in 2020, the British Library will also host its third Food Season and fourth Season of Sound.

The full programme of upcoming events can be found of the British Library’s What’s On pages.

Second Floor Gallery

Throughout 2020 there will be rotating displays in the Second Floor Gallery of the British Library, offering a focus on many different creative practices. Displays for next year include:

  • Exquisite Patterns: Japanese Textile Design (14 February – 17 May 2020), highlighting the creativity and skill of artists, designers and publishers through a selection of images reproduced from the British Library’s collection of Japanese pattern books, from practical designs produced by kimono merchants to lavish commercial publications.
  • Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe (29 May – 9 August 2020) This exhibition is composed of nine powerfully evocative photographic self-portraits by the talented Gambian–British artist Khadija Saye, who was tragically killed in the Grenfell fire of 2017. These works, produced here as silk-screen prints, sprang from Saye’s deep concern with ‘how trauma is embodied in the black experience’, as well as her enduring fascination with Gambian traditions of spirituality. 
  • A display of specially-commissioned infographics using data from the British Library’s digitised newspapers and other data sources to illustrate key themes from 19th-century British life, including health, crime, war, and newspapers themselves. (14 August – 15 November 2020)

Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library

There will be a series of temporary displays in this free, permanent gallery which includes some of the world’s most exciting, beautiful and significant books, manuscripts and sound recordings, from Magna Carta and Shakespeare, to Jane Austen and Mozart. Next year, some new additions to the Gallery include works by influential female authors and artists including Christine Tacq, Natalie d'Arbelhoff and Nancy Morejón.

In 2020, the Library will delve into the life, writing and legacy of one of Britain’s most famous poets, William Wordsworth, in the 250th anniversary year of his birth. The display will feature original drafts of Wordsworth’s verse, his notebooks, correspondence and more (17 January – 31 May 2020).

There will also be a display to mark the 400th anniversary of an iconic journey; the Pilgrim’s voyage aboard the Mayflower to establish a colony in what is now New England in North America, and a display looking at life on the Home Front which will focus on the experience of people living through the Second World War.

Beyond the Library

Treasures on Tour

In November 2019 the British Library loaned an original manuscript of Middlemarch to Coventry to celebrate George Eliot’s 200-year birthday, on display at The Herbert until 5 January 2020 in a display titled ‘Exploring Eliot’s Coventry,’ and will from there move to Nuneaton. This is the first loan as part of the British Library’s national Treasures on Tour Programme, working with partners across the UK to share its collection of over 170 million treasures, enabling collection items to be seen across many communities. The programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library will be announcing additional loans as part of this programme in early 2020.

International Touring

Harry Potter: A History of Magic tour to Japan

Later next year, Harry Potter: A History of Magic will open in Japan at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art from 5 September – 8 November 2020, and Tokyo Station Gallery from 21 November 2020 – 7 February 2021. The exhibitions will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Japanese edition Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

This marks the next chapter for the British Library’s most successful exhibition, which attracted 170,000 visitors between October 2017 and February 2018, breaking new ground for the Library’s public programmes, with many visitors coming to the Library for the first time. 


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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 (with a guest), access to the exclusive Members’ Room (with a guest), priority booking and free tickets for events, 20% discount in British Library shops, restaurants and cafés. Membership is available at a range of prices and full details are available at www.bl.uk/membership.

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.

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.

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Charlotte Sidwell


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The British Library
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