Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

24 April 2020

Exhibition on hold but women’s rights remain Unfinished Business


As for so many people across the country and around the world, we are adapting to a new way of working. We had spent much of the spring fervently planning for the opening of our landmark exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, which was due to open today. Featuring an eclectic mix of video, music, photography, art, costume, manuscripts, posters and banners, the exhibition would have explored the riveting and unfinished story of women’s struggles to be taken seriously, treated equally and to change the world for the better.

For two years, together with fantastic teams across the Library and an amazing external Advisory Board, I had been working to craft an exhibition which would connect the current moment of feminist activism and agitation with the ‘longest revolution’ – the history of women’s rights in the UK. Finally, at the end of March, with writer, broadcaster and activist Sandi Toksvig lined up to speak at the launch and with the black, feminist punk band Big Joanie set to get us in the mood, the opening was in sight. But, when the world turned upside down due to COVID-19 and lockdown became inevitable, the nearly-built exhibition was put on hold indefinitely.

During this hiatus, the issue of women’s rights has taken centre stage: coronavirus has thrown issues, such as reproductive rights and domestic violence, into sharp relief and reminded us that women’s rights are, indeed, unfinished business. Contrastingly, it has also highlighted the value that community and working towards a shared goal can bring to tackling seemingly insurmountable hardship, as has been evident in the fight for women’s rights for centuries. So it is absolutely fitting that we remain committed to delivering the exhibition and its associated events.

We are planning to open the exhibition later this year and will be sure to keep you updated through our channels. In the meantime, we will continue to explore women’s rights digitally alongside writers, artists and activists over the summer months.

Our first offering could not be more apt – a tribute to writer Mary Wollstonecraft on 27 April, the anniversary of her birthday. This podcast features historian Dan Snow, Lady Hale, campaigner Bee Rowlatt, scholar Professor Emma Clery, actor Saffron Burrows and musician Jade Ellins. It is not the event we had originally planned but I can’t think of a better way, while in lockdown, to kick start the Unfinished Business exhibition than to pay homage to the foremother of feminism.

Polly Russell

Lead Curator of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights