Living Knowledge blog

4 posts from August 2016

26 August 2016

Our Shakespeare: a collaboration between the British Library and the Library of Birmingham

You may have noticed that 2016 is the year of William Shakespeare. Four hundred years ago, the Bard of Avon ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’, to quote Shakespeare himself (Hamlet, III.1). Since that time, the plays and poems of one of our greatest writers have inspired people around the world. His plays continue to captivate audiences, and to amuse (and occasionally to bemuse) schoolchildren in their thousands.

Birm_Shakespeare_Prelim_21Putting the finishing touches to the exhibition: image courtesy of Dave Warren.

This year, the British Library has commemorated Shakespeare’s legacy by mounting not one but two exhibitions devoted to one of the most innovative and imaginative writers of all time. Here in London, our landmark exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts (open until 6 September) continues to wow our visitors: ‘this is the best exhibition I have ever been to’, declared none other than Peter Brook, director of the monumental Stratford-upon-Avon Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970. Meantime, and equally significantly, the British Library has been involved in the staging of another Shakespeare exhibition, in collaboration with our friends at the Library of Birmingham.

FG3A6408The First Folio pavilion at the centre of the Our Shakespeare exhibition: image courtesy of 4D.

The Our Shakespeare exhibition has been the centrepiece of a year-long cultural relationship between the United Kingdom’s national library and the Library of Birmingham. Birmingham holds one of the largest Shakespeare collections in the whole world, let alone the UK, comprising thousands of printed books, playbills, photographs, programmes and posters. Some of the highlights of that collection are currently on display, for free, in the third floor Gallery of the Library of Birmingham: they include not only Birmingham’s very own copy of the famous First Folio of the plays of Shakespeare, printed in 1623, but also donations from around the world. One of our favourites is this Russian translation of Romeo and Juliet, presented to the people of Birmingham by a delegation from the Soviet Union in 1964 (the gift comprised some 300 other Shakespearean books and photographs). Shakespeare clearly has the capacity to transcend national boundaries, and to override linguistic and political divisions.

  OurShakespeare_23The Library of Birmingham’s First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare (1623).

Our Shakespeare showcases some of the Library of Birmingham’s Shakespearean treasures, and it also features a number of exhibits on loan from the British Library. These British Library loans range from some of the oldest printed copies of Shakespeare’s plays to items relating to Laurence Olivier’s aborted film of Macbeth in the 1950s. Indeed, the exhibition was put together by colleagues from London and Birmingham, drawing upon the joint expertise of curators, project managers and conservators from both institutions. We are justifiably proud of our achievement, and we hope sincerely that William Shakespeare would have been proud of it, too. Our Shakespeare celebrates his status as one of Warwickshire’s most famous citizens; the history of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Library, and its recovery after a disastrous fire in 1879 to form one of the greatest Shakespearean collections anywhere; and the genius of Shakespeare’s writings, numbering among them some of the greatest works of world literature, such as The Tempest and King Lear.

1st edition Romeo  Juliet in RussianRomeo and Juliet in Russian (1963): image courtesy of Dave Warren.

You need to hurry if you wish to see Our Shakespeare in person. It’s fun, it’s free, but it’s only open until Saturday, 3 September. Otherwise, you can see a selection of images of the exhibition here, and you can also read more about The Real Macbeth in one of our earlier blogposts.

FG3A6492Visitors to the Our Shakespeare exhibition have been encouraged to leave messages to their loved ones on our very own Juliet’s Wall: image courtesy of 4D Projects.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank Tom Epps, Claire Robe and my colleagues across the British Library and the Library of Birmingham, all of whom worked tirelessly to put together the Our Shakespeare exhibition in record time.

Julian Harrison

Lead Curator, Our Shakespeare exhibition


24 August 2016

On the trail of the Essex Serpent

Essex Serpent woodcut SMALLER

Novelist Sarah Perry describes her encounter with the original 1669 pamphlet that inspired her acclaimed novel, The Essex Serpent.

I received my first British Library Reader Pass in 2008, as I began a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic. Since I’d come prepared to argue my suitability for inclusion in one of the world’s most famous libraries, the ease with which I was awarded my card was faintly disappointing, though being fond of rules I was delighted to be forbidden the use of a pen, and instructed to leave my satchel in a locker. Over the next four years – during which that first precious pass was lost and replaced at least three times – I researched and wrote my thesis, always in more or less the same location (Hum 2, on the left and towards the back), and sat deploring my poverty of intellect before meeting my tutor for strong coffee.

Sarah-Perry-005-for-web-SMALLER-2When my PhD was over, and I left London for Norfolk, I missed the Library so much that the sight of my Reader Pass always gave me a pang. I’d imagined making frequent visits to research my second novel, The Essex Serpent, but more than three years passed before I returned – in search of the beast himself.

I first heard of this mythical serpent courtesy of my husband, who’d been reading a little 1938 book called ‘Companion Into Essex’. The book includes an excerpt from a pamphlet printed at Clerkenwell in 1669, which relates the appearance of “a Monstrous Serpent”. The pamphlet goes on to show “the length, proportion, the bigness of the Serpent, the places where it commonly lurks and what means hath been used to kill it.”

I’m still uncertain why this pamphlet detonated my imagination in quite the way it did, but four years later I’d completed a novel in which the Essex Serpent returns to menace the 1890’s coastal village of Aldwinter. As I wrote, I relied on Google images of the original pamphlet, which is headed STRANGE NEWS OUT OF ESSEX and bears a wonderful wood-cut of a quite benevolent-looking animal being poked at with lances by men on horseback. Longing to see the original, I paid $1.95 to an American company to download a .pdf copy, but it was no good: I needed to feel the original pamphlet in my hands.

It was a long time before I thought to consult the British Library catalogues: perhaps I’d convinced myself that the entire business had only been in my imagination. But there it was, on my laptop screen in my Norwich study: The Flying Serpent, or, strange news out of Essex, being a true relation of a Serpent seen at Henham on the Mount, etc. London, [1669?].

Essex_Serpent_Packshot-SMALLEST-2A few days later, having discovered that my fourth Reader Pass was also lost, I made my way back to the British Library. I recall feeling a little nervous, convinced up to the last moment that the pamphlet I’d pored over online for so long could not be real. It was impossible to keep my excitement from the librarian who withdrew the original item from the shelves. I subjected her to a breathless précis of the entire novel, only just managing to refrain from reciting the opening paragraphs. (She very kindly asked for my autograph. “Soon this will be worth literally ones of pounds!” I said.)

The pamphlet was kept inside a hard binding to protect it. When I opened the covers, there was the vanillin scent of old paper. And there he was, just as I’d seen him in the dead of night on my computer screen, or printed out on a reused sheet of paper: the Strange News, the Essex Serpent, with his owl-like eyes and his dear little wings and his slightly gormless smile. Not a bit like the near-invisible malevolent presence that saturates my novel, but as familiar to me as an old pet. I sat with it a long while, reading again that wry opening, imagining a laconic Essex farmer reading it out: “Guests, fish and news go stale in three days’ time, and nothing delights an Englishman’s fancy so much as new novelties…”

I am prone to sentimentality, and had to wipe away a tear or two: it felt, I think, as if I’d come to the end of a long journey. When I handed it back to the librarian I wondered if I’d ever return to see it again – and I doubt it, but sometimes wonder if in future years my readers will visit him instead.

Sarah Perry


18 August 2016

Nudity, trees and biscuits: how we made Shakespeare in Ten Acts

SMALLER - AhumanskullonloanfromtheVAphotobyClareKendallZoë Wilcox, lead curator of Shakespeare in Ten Acts, adjusts a human skull given to Sarah Bernhardt by Victor Hugo. On loan from the V&A. Photo by Clare Kendall.

Legendary Shakespeare director Sir Peter Brook described it as ‘the best exhibition I have ever been to’ while the Times Literary Supplement hailed it as ‘a show of shows’. Our major exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, now in its final few weeks, has been praised by reviewers and visitors alike – but how does the Library set about staging such a spectacular and wide-ranging display? Our Exhibitions Manager, Alex Goddard, takes you behind the scenes.

  SMALLER - corrected Shakespeare-infographic

How long did it take to prepare this exhibition?

Like other exhibitions we have staged, preparations began nearly four years ago to bring Shakespeare in Ten Acts to life. Our exhibitions and interpretation teams start to meet curators around 18-24 months before an exhibition opens, to pull together the storyline and finalise the object list.

How do you choose the themes of the exhibition?

Curators and the Interpretation Manager develop a scoping brief that gives an overview of the exhibition, outlines the different sections and star items, and provides information about the objectives of the exhibition, its messages and its target audiences. They also work together to produce all of the exhibition text, the audio-visual elements and the imagery.

We work with colleagues in Conservation to assess all items to go on display and make arrangements for the mounting and framing of all objects.

Can you tell us how the look and feel of the gallery came to life?

We approached several companies who then worked on a design and presented their ideas. We then appointed a design agency about a year before the exhibition opened.

The design for Shakespeare in Ten Acts incorporated a visually stunning representation of the shipwreck from The Tempest and Ariel’s appearance as a harpy in Act 3, Scene 3 of the same play – this clip shows them being installed.

What were the challenges?

There was a large amount of content, including over 230 items, lots of audio and video, a number of commissions and an ambitious design. We work to tight budgets and deadlines, but every project is exciting and unique and I personally love the combination of working with 2D and 3D designers, as well as getting to know the content of the exhibition.

What do you like most about putting together an exhibition?

One of my favourite highlights is getting to look at and handle the fascinating objects that are featured like Shakespeare’s First Folio – a rare and extraordinary privilege!

As many of the items in the exhibition are loans, this may be your only opportunity to see them side-by-side, telling the story of ten of the most iconic performances of Shakespeare. You have until 6 September – catch it while you can!

Alexandra Goddard

Exhibitions Manager

Shakespeare in Ten Acts continues at the British Library at St Pancras until Tuesday 6 September, 2016.