Established by Act of Parliament in 1972 and opened in 1973, the British Library is the national library; with it origins stretching back to the enlightenment and the mid 18th Century. The Grade 1 listed red brisk building next to St Pancras Station is now 20 years old, and was the largest modern public building in its time. The collection is open to all and the institutions engagement is wide and diverse, with much of the content is online.
The library, in its anniversary year, currently has three exhibitions relating to historical anniversaries – two relating to the movement of people and cultures and the other the movement of ideas.
James Cook: The Voyages
The largest is James Cook: The Voyages to mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s Endeavour setting out on the first of its three voyages, with the exhibition covering all three and based on the libraries collection.
Much of the Exhibition consists of artworks, of which many are the first ever-western depiction of their subject. These are set along side the maps and charts Cook created. He was an expert at charting and mapping, which led to his selection by the Admiralty and Royal Society for the exploration. His chart of New Zealand looks like a standard chart, but it’s the very first and incredibly accurate. The chart took 6 months and proved that New Zealand was two islands and not one that was part of the mythical Great Southern Continent as some in Europe thought.
Through the films dotted through the exhibition, it looks at Cook’s legacy in the South Pacific and how controversial he still is out there. At once he was an explorer and discoverer, while also bringing colonising, trade and the usurping of land that is still keenly felt by many out there.
Set in four spaces, the walls are designed to be like the coastline of the islands they represent. The exhibition opens with a look at the enlightenment and how it’s ideas influenced and interconnected with nationalism, empire, trade etc. This ‘London’ Room acts as the central room that you return to and move through after the space for each voyage
Voyage 1 opens with a depiction of the Rio cost, created by the Endeavour when the authorities refused to let them land, in the belief they were spies; of course the drawing includes the cities defenses so in some small way they were indeed spying. You’ll also see the preserved beak of a squid found dead on the sea, that Joseph Banks ate it for dinner and then brought the beak back.
In the space dedicated to this first voyage you move through spaces dedicated to Tierra del Fuego, with art works of the inhabitants by Alexander Buchan, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia.
On Tahiti, Cook and his companions encountered Tupaia, a high priest who drew pictures of his people, that are on display here. They are set side by side with the drawings made by Cook’s team, giving an insight into the perceptions and styles of both societies; the view of the ‘more advanced’ outsider and the view of the local.
The New Zealand and Australia spaces contain images of the first western encounters with the Maori as well as the charts made, which would in time help kick off the colonisation of both countries, making them contentious items despite their accuracy and quality. When, 18 years later, the British government was looking for a penal colony it was Joseph Banks that suggested Botany Bay (the name of the Bay hints at the role as a botany study voyage too) and with that the start of colonisation.
You’ll also find the chart mapping where the Endeavour crashed on the Great Barrier Reef – it has been one of those great what ifs of history, the thought of what might have happened if they had not been able to save the boat and return to Britain.
Voyage 2 was to find the Great Southern Continent, or as was the case, to prove it did not exist. A smaller space, it houses stunning images of life on Tahiti, New Caledonia and other islands of the South Pacific made by William Hodges. These drawings, like many images created over the three voyages, were then worked up as oil painting back in London
The other focus of the space, and the voyage, is the Antarctic. They melted down an iceberg and discovered it was made of fresh water. Not only did this mean they could replenish their stores, but it meant that they had discovered that icebergs form on land and then move into the sea, rather than being formed at sea. This had been a question that the answer to had been unknown until this moment. Cook’s journal from the trip is on display and recounts the many crossings of the Antarctic Circle they made – again a first for western explorers.
Importantly Cook returned to the Pacific in the winter months. During this time he charted and mapped the location of islands that were known but not actually placed on European maps like Easter Island. For years Europeans had know of Easter Island and others like it, but did not know its exact position, making return trips difficult. Cook’s maps meant people could go back easily, but of course opened up the prospect of colonialism.
Cook’s final voyage was in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, though publically it was announced as a return trip to Tahiti given the commercial and military advantage the Northwest Passage would bring should it be found.
While the passage was not found, it did lead to Cook charting the west coast of North America, the last major inhabited land mass not charted on European maps. They also took European livestock and crops for New Zealand and Tahiti in belief they were helping the indigenous populations, and became the first known Europeans to visit Hawaii. Cook was later killed on Hawaii when they returned for the winter (instead of going to Russia).
It is a highly detailed exhibition but don’t let this put you off. The items on display are stunning, not just in their look and design, but in what they represent. Many depict the first time Westerners and South Pacificers had encountered each other. While without the charts on display the course of the last 300 years would have been totally different.
James Cook: The Voyages – Closes 28th August
The Treasures Gallery
The Treasures Gallery is a must visit, it’s a permanent display housing some of the greatest pieces in the Libraries collection.
You’ll find original Shakespeare folios, works by da Vinci, historic music scores from across Europe, works of literature including Chris Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and Robert Burns. You’ll also find The Beatles, historical documents including a charter issued by Henry III in 1225 regarding the management of royal forests, and works of exquisite calligraphy and decoration from chronicles to Arabic books dating back 600+ years, and of course ornate sacred texts from all religions.
There is also a temporary display as part of the 200th birthday of Karl Marx and how British Museum Library played role in his and his daughter’s life. The British Museum Library and its famous reading room was the predecessor of the British Library.
Karl Marx Exhibit – Closes 5th August
Windrush at 70
The Library had planned Windrush at 70 for some time, but this small display has now taken on a far more politically charged nature given recent revelations from the Home Office that brought about the resignation of Amber Rudd.
Full of images and items reflecting both the culture of those that arrived on the Windrush and their contributions to politics, war service and culture in the UK, it also explores the wider context leading up to 1948. It starts with the history of Caribbean link to U.K., before looking at the idea of Britain as the mother country, the experience and issues of identity that many had when coming to the UK before looking at the politics of race in the 1970s and 80s.
The Windrush changed the Britain in ways that we take for granted today, so small as the display is, it is well worth a look especially for those that were not alive at the time.
Windrush – Closes 21st October