Writing: Making Your Mark opens at the British Library this spring

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

Writing: Making Your Mark 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. 


From carved stone inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and early printed works to beautiful calligraphy, iconic fonts and emojis, Writing: Making Your Mark (26 April – 27 August 2019) will deconstruct the act of writing and consider its future in the digital age.

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 with examples from over 30 different writing systems, including Greek, Chinese and Arabic.  Writing: Making Your Mark will explore 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.

Works by famous hands, such as the final diary entry by Scott of the Antarctic and James Joyce’s autograph notes for Ulysses, will sit alongside tools belonging to unknown everyday people, including early 19th century Burmese tattooing instruments and modern reed pens, which will be seen in new light. 

Many items will be going on display for the first time and exhibition highlights include:

  • An 1,800-year-old ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters
  • The first book printed in England, Caxton’s 1476-7 printing of the Canterbury Tales
  • A 60,000 strong petition from 1905 protesting against the first partition of Bengal, signed in Bengali and English
  • Tools including styluses, brushes, quill pens, ball-point pens, typewriters and computers
  • Mozart’s catalogue of his complete musical works from 1784-1791, featuring his handwriting and musical notation
  • Alexander Fleming’s autograph notebook recording his discovery of penicillin from 1928

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 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.  We hope that visitors will consider their own relationship with writing in the digital age and reflect on whether we will abandon pens and keyboards in favour of voice-activated machine writing and video messaging, or continue to carry the legacy of ancient times with us.’

Pop-up exhibitions around the UK

Writing: Making Your Mark will launch simultaneously 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. 

This simultaneous launch will build on the success of the first Living Knowledge Network display, which was based on the British Library’s Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition and welcomed over 775,000 visitors in 2017-18.

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.

Accompanying book


Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library will be accompanied by 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.

Events inspired by the exhibition

There will be a programme of events inspired by the exhibition.  Events from April to June 2019 will be available on the British Library’s What’s On pages from 22 February 2019Priority booking is available to Members from 1 March 2019 and tickets will go on general sale from 8 March 2019. 

Plaiting, Knotting, Weaving: The Translator in Motion
Monday 29 April 13.00 – 13.30 and 17.00 – 17.30
Translation relies on more than mental gymnastics. It engages muscle memory, relies on repetitive movements, prompts gestures and generates sounds. Translators Sophie Seita and Jen Calleja engage with the often out-of-sight body of the translator through a dynamic new movement piece.
Free / Drop in / Entrance Hall

Writing: Humanity's Greatest Invention
Thursday 2 May 19.00 – 20.30 
As writing becomes increasingly electronic, what is the future for the craft skills and material objects showcased in the Writing exhibition? In this lecture, Ewan Clayton discusses what writing is, how it works, and what the future might hold for one of humanity’s most significant achievements.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre

Michael Rosen's Alphabet Soup  
Friday 3 May 19.00 – 20.30
Is A for apple? Richly illustrated and often themed, alphabet books are one of our earliest encounters with the shapes and sounds of letters. Writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen takes us on a celebratory romp through our ABCs.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre

Cuneiform: the Oldest Form of Writing in the World
Tuesday 7 May 19.00 – 20.30
From mundane record keeping to fortune telling, Cuneiform script on tablets of clay reveals ancient Mesopotamian civilisation in a very human way: its history and economics, beliefs, ideas and superstitions. A talk by Irving Finkel of the British Museum, with readings and ancient music performed live.
£15 / £12 / £10 / Knowledge Centre

The History of Reading 
Thursday 9 May 19.15 – 20.30
Belinda Jack explores the fascinating history of reading from the ancient world to our own increasingly digital age, considering the power of reading to move, inspire, arouse, and inform us.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre

Postcard from the Past: Tom Jackson 
Friday 10 May 19.15 – 20.30
Tom Jackson, curator of the Postcard from the Past Twitter feed and book, presents a selection of the oddest, funniest, most touching postcard messages, and asks whether it’s too late to revive the art of postcard writing.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre

Artists' Books Now: Writing
Monday 13 May 18.30 – 20.30
From urgent witness to exquisite calligraphy, artists use writing in a huge variety of ways. How have contemporary artists’ books been influenced by the rich history of writing? Artists talk alongside their extraordinary books.
£8 / £6 / £5 / Knowledge Centre

The Word on the Street: Graffiti, Typography and Art 
Friday 17 May 19.00 – 20.30
Explore the zone where rebellion meets beauty and transgression meets art. With a star panel including New York photojournalist Martha Cooper, graffiti bomber turned international musician Goldie, and artist eL Seed. Includes entry to Late at the Library: Word Up.
£25 / £22 / £20 / Knowledge Centre

Late at the Library: Word Up
Friday 17 May 19.30 – 22.30
Your chance to experience and recreate the written word. Be inspired by guest artists, crafts people and DJs. Try your hand at lettering art, poster making, stone carving, calligraphy and the latest technological tools. Includes entry to the exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark.  
£15 / £12 / £10 / Entrance Hall

How to Write a Book in a Day: The Rathbones Folio Sessions 
Sunday 19 May 11.30 – 17.15
They say that everyone has a book in them. But not everyone manages to write it. Join writers as they reveal the tricks of their trade and invite you to get to the heart of what makes a great book tick. For aspiring authors and book lovers alike, A L Kennedy is our host, with guests including Kate Clanchy, Owen Sheers, Adam Foulds, Louise Doughty, Chloe Aridjis, Francesca Beard and Joe Dunthorne.
£15 / £12 / £10 / Piazza Pavilion

The Rathbones Folio Mentorships
Sunday 19 May 16.15 – 17.15
Join the final session of the Rathbones Folio Sessions featuring the Rathbones Folio mentors (Francesca Beard, Louise Doughty, Joe Dunthorne and Adam Foulds) and their mentees: gifted young students who have experienced one-to-one mentorship over the course of a school year.
Free / Drop in / Piazza Pavilion
In partnership with First Story

Papyrology
Monday 20 May 19.15 – 20.30
What is papyrology? What do papyrologists do? What does writing on papyri tells us about the ancient world? Join expert, Jean-Luc Fournet, for an insight into world of papyri.
£10 / £8 / £7 / Knowledge Centre 

Handwriting: Then and Now
Tuesday 28 May 19.00 – 20.30
From carving on stone to putting pen to paper, much of writing involves work by hand. Ewan Clayton looks at handwriting styles and materials from the past using the British Library collection, while Angela Webb explores its future, including a look at the impact it can have on learning.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre

The Wisdom of Fonts: Designing Typefaces
Friday 31 May 19.00 – 20.30
We encounter hundreds of typefaces every day, from the centuries-old Garamond to the 20th-century classic Helvetica, and new designs are consistently introduced, reflecting changing tastes and needs. Leading designers including Jonathan Barnbrook and Jeremy Tankard talk about their processes in a celebration of fonts.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre
In association with Graphic Communication Design, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

Martin Puchner: The Written World
Tuesday 4 June 19.00 – 20.30
Literary critic and philosopher Martin Puchner delves into our basic human need to create stories, explores what happens when writing attempts to record and so fix these tales, and how these sagas and fictions have shaped the world we live in today.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre

Boring Talk: Stationery
Thursday 6 June 19.00 – 20.30
Boring Talks celebrate the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked. Sharpen your pencils and get ready for a wealth of trivial and pointless discussion about writing materials.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre
In association with the Boring Conference 

Word Houses: Dictionaries, Archives, Libraries and Beyond
Monday 10 June 14.00 – 20.30
How do encyclopaedias and archives, grammars and dictionaries, and anthologies and libraries shape our words and our worlds? Join writers, curators and word experts including lexicographer and TV star Susie Dent for a half day of talks, with entry to the evening event with Alberto Manguel included (see next listing).
£20 / £18 / £16 / Knowledge Centre
In association with UCL European Institute

Alberto Manguel in Conversation 
Monday 10 June 19.00 – 20.30
An evening conversation with Canadian writer, translator, and librarian Alberto Manguel.
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre
In association with UCL European Institute

The Future of Graphic Communication Design
Thursday 13 June 19.00 – 20.30
Short-form video, memes, emojis, voice-recognition software: much of our reading and writing is now in digital form, and new technologies have changed the ways we absorb and share information. Our panel assesses these dramatic shifts and considers the future. With Paul Finn, Jaap de Maat and guests.  
£12 / £10 / £8 / Knowledge Centre
In association with Graphic Communication Design, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

Partition Interrupted: Finding Punjabi Across Scripts  
Thursday 13 June 19.15 – 20.30
An evening exploring the politics of Punjabi language writing in the decades preceding the Partition of India, a period which saw the emergence of new literary works across diverse genres and scripts and targeting diverse communities.
£10 / £8 / £7 / Knowledge Centre

How the Maya Write
Friday 14 June 19.15 – 20.30
In this illustrated lecture archaeologist Elizabeth Graham explores Mayan writing and its content: the rise and fall of kings and queens, dynastic ties, ritual events, and the celebration of victories over rivals.
£10 / £8 / £7 / Knowledge Centre

Lettering Walking Tours
Tuesday 25 June 18.30 – 20.30 British Library to the British Museum 
Thursday 27 June 18.30 – 20.30 National Gallery to the British Museum  
Tuesday 2 July 18.30 – 20.30 Holborn to the City
Thursday 4 July 18.30 – 20.30 Smithfield   
The cityscape is packed with lettering. From beautiful building names and constantly changing shop fronts to old ‘ghost-signs’, we see writing around us every day, but may not stop to appreciate it. Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon of Central Saint Martins lead a series of walks uncovering some of the fascinating visual landscapes of London. 
£15 / £12 / £10 / various meeting points. Visit the website for full details.
In association with Graphic Communication Design, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

Konrad Tuchscherer: Script in West Africa
Friday 28 June 19.15 – 20.30
Konrad Tuchscherer, a specialist in African history and languages, looks at the origin, development and spread of writing in West Africa.
£10 / £8 / £7 / Knowledge Centre

Curator’s Lunchtime Talk: Writing 
Monday 1 July 13.00 – 14.00
The Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition brings together over 100 objects from the British Library's collection, spanning 5,000 years. Exhibition curator Adrian Edwards explains how it all came together.
Free / Ticket required / Knowledge Centre

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation
Monday 15 July 19.15 – 20.30
Writing never travels alone. From the Library of Alexandria to the iPhone, Keith Houston traces the history of the punctuation marks, symbols and other typographical signs that add meaning to our words - and which sometimes do just the opposite.
Tickets to go on sale on 28 May 2019 / Knowledge Centre


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Notes to Editors

Please contact alice.carter@bl.uk to be updated on press material for Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library.

#MakingYourMark

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 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.