Living Knowledge blog

4 posts from August 2020

28 August 2020

Reopening and reinterpretation – our Front Hall busts

On 1 September 2020, the British Library at St Pancras reopens its public spaces and galleries for pre-booked ticket holders. While many of our visitors will be keen to come in to see firm favourites and new additions to the Treasures Gallery, after entering the building and walking up the staircase, they will also find a new interpretive panel on some of the individuals whose collections were acquired by the British Museum and later transferred to the British Library. Directly above, sit the busts of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), The Right Honourable Thomas Grenville (1755-1846), and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).

While the Library, its staff, and many members of the public are consciously aware that some items we hold across our collections were originally acquired through profits from slavery or acts of imperial plunder, by providing for the first time an interpretive display on the busts, we are openly acknowledging our institution’s history and specifically the contentious aspects of the careers of both Joseph Banks and Hans Sloane.

Prior to the building opening its doors in 1997, the architect Sir Colin St John Wilson, in consultation with the Board Members of the British Library, selected a range of art works for display both outside the building and within. These include the gates of the British Library by David Kinderlsey, the 12 foot bronze statue featuring Sir Isaac Newton in the search for knowledge by Sir Eduardo Palozzi, and the enormous almost 49 square metre tapestry woven by the Edinburgh Tapestry Company depicting R.B. Kitaj’s famous interpretation of T.S. Elliot’s celebrated poem ‘The Waste Land’ – every art work selected had a function and designated place according to Wilson’s vision.  

While the architect and the Library were able to commission new art works or alternatively borrow from the British Museum for the public spaces including portraits of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (1661-1724) and Sir Anthony Panizzi (1797-1879), Principal Librarian of the British Museum 1856-66, the busts of Cotton, Banks, Grenville and Sloane were not the originals. Instead of placing the originals in the front entrance hall, the Library and Museum arranged to have facsimiles cast of these key individuals in the 1990s. In keeping with the design of the new building, the accompanying labels only contained the name of the sitter or object and the artist.  

We were aware of Historic England's Contested Heritage guidance which recommends, where possible, leaving contentious statues in place but adding "powerful develop a deeper understanding of our often difficult past." Through an iterative and collaborative process, British Library curatorial and interpretation staff, supported by representatives from the Library’s BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) Staff Network, have prepared the new interpretive text panel. The process drew upon the expertise of British Library curators, external academics and historians, working together with our Exhibitions team and BAME Network colleagues. We wanted to ensure that the information was historically accurate and provided a comprehensive overview of each individual’s career.

Of the four busts and individuals placed in their elevated roundels, Hans Sloane (died 1753) and Joseph Banks (died 1840) are undoubtedly the most contentious historical figures. Sloane, however, was one of the most influential men of the British Enlightenment in the 18th century. He was a physician, botanist and collector and served as physician to King George II and held the posts of President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (1719-35) and President of the Royal Society (1727-41). In his will, Sloane specified that his collection consisting of 80,000 objects should be offered to the nation on provision of £20,000 for his heirs. This legacy effectively catalysed the creation of the British Museum, and Sloane’s materials formed one of its three founding collections.

The British Library is committed to becoming an anti-racist organisation. By offering a reinterpretation of these key individuals we hope to advance knowledge about the legacies of colonialism and slavery, and provide a fuller picture of these men and their careers, reflecting both the good and the bad. In addition, we have included a couple of direct, attributed statements from staff members, to provide a more personal perspective.

For the readers of the Living Knowledge blog and virtual visitors to the Library, please see below the new informative labels that are now placed below these busts for context.

Malini Roy

Head of Visual Arts Section

British Library, Asian and African Collections


Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631)

Bust_Robert_Cotton-SMALLERRobert Cotton was a landowner, politician and scholar. He made his collection of books and manuscripts – including two original copies of Magna Carta – available for consultation. In 1629 the King ordered the closure of Cotton’s library, which was seen as a threat to royal power, and Cotton was briefly imprisoned.

Cotton’s son and grandson expanded the collection, ultimately leaving it to Parliament to ‘be kept and preserved … for Publick Use and Advantage’. UNESCO added the Cotton manuscripts to its Memory of the World UK Register in 2018.

20th-century replica after Louis-François Roubiliac, 1757



Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820)

Bust_Sir_Joseph_Banks-SMALLERJoseph Banks was a prominent botanist, who served as President of the Royal Society, and advised on the development of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He was a key figure in the British Empire’s expansion in, and exploitation of, the Pacific. Banks self-funded his journey to join James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific in 1768. As well as collecting thousands of plant and animal specimens from across the globe, Banks and his party described and documented ‘other’ peoples they encountered.

In a series of violent clashes during Cook’s voyage around Aotearoa (New Zealand), Banks was involved in the murder of at least one Māori warrior and was also party to the kidnapping of three Māori youths in which four other Māori were shot and killed. A decade after returning to England, Banks advocated for the establishment of a British prison colony in ‘New South Wales’, and later of the British colonial settlement of Australia, which has resulted in the ongoing displacement and oppression of the continent’s indigenous peoples. After his death, Banks’ collections were left to the British Museum, later passing in part to the British Library.

20th-century replica after Anne Seymour Damer, 1814


 Joseph Banks was a key player in the opening up of the Pacific and Australia for exploitation and enforced colonisation. Less publicised is his direct involvement in the murder of several Māori during his voyage with Cook on the Endeavour. My Ngati Kahungunu ancestors were among those killed – a trauma we still feel heavily today. For the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, Banks is a symbol for violence and oppression under the guise of exploration and science.

Scott Ratima Nolan, Conservation Support Assistant, British Library



The Right Honourable Thomas Grenville (1755–1846)

Bust_Thomas_Grenville-SMALLERThomas Grenville was a politician, diplomat and bibliophile from an elite landowning family. As a younger son, he did not succeed to the family estates and most of his income came from public service. Grenville was the First Lord of the Admiralty within the government led by his younger brother, Lord Grenville, which among its reforming Acts passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Despite this new law, slavery remained legal in British colonies until 1833 (and in some British-controlled territories until 1843) and the imperial elite continued to profit from the labour of enslaved people.

Grenville was a Trustee of the British Museum and a strong supporter of Anthony Panizzi, the Italian political refugee who was to transform the library of the British Museum. Grenville collected around 20,000 titles over his lifetime, including a Shakespeare First Folio. He later left these to the British Museum in recognition of the financial benefit that he had derived from his public appointments.

20th-century replica after GB Comolli, 19th century



Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753)

Bust_Sir_Hans_Sloane-SMALLERHans Sloane was born in Ulster, in the north of Ireland, and trained as a physician. An avid collector from an early age, he acquired over 200,000 plant and animal specimens, 71,000 objects, and over 50,000 books, manuscripts, prints and drawings. These later became the foundation collection of the British Museum.

Sloane travelled to Jamaica in 1687 as physician to the island’s British colonial Governor and worked as a doctor on slave plantations. Using the expertise of enslaved West Africans and English planters, he collected hundreds of plant and animal specimens. When he returned to London, Sloane married Elizabeth Langley Rose, an heiress to sugar plantations in Jamaica. He was a shareholder in the Royal African and South Sea Companies, both of which profited from the slave trade. His medical income, his investments, and the profits from the forced labour on his wife’s plantations enabled Sloane to build such a large collection.

20th-century replica after Michael Rysbrack, 18th century


 It is too often said that the transatlantic slave trade is long behind us. An untold number of our ancestors’ lives were completely ruined by men like Hans Sloane. Every one of their waking moments filled with violent abuse, torture, unpaid manual labour, rape and treatment as if less than human. That pain and trauma is still with us as we fight to make a world that is truly anti-racist. We cannot allow the glorification of enslavers and their legacies to continue through succeeding generations. We must remember these men for who they truly were, for their crimes as well as their accomplishments.

Reuben Massiah, Learning Facilitator, British Library

Chantelle Richardson, Chevening British Library Fellow 2019–2020/ Librarian, National Library of Jamaica


25 August 2020

Welcome back to our Treasures Gallery!

A_masked_woman_views_a_sacred_text_in_the_British_Library_Treasures_Gallery_photo_credit_David Jensen

Photograph credit: David Jensen

What do The Beatles, Florence Nightingale and Andrea Levy have in common? You’ve probably already guessed: they are all featured in our Treasures of the British Library Gallery. After an absence of some five months (has it really been that long?), the Gallery re-opens to visitors with a pre-booked ticket from 1 September 2020. The books, maps and manuscripts have missed you: you may have missed them, too. So what can you see?

First of all, regular visitors to the Treasures Gallery will notice that a few things have changed. We have introduced a new, one-way route to enable you to navigate safely past our collection items, observing the social distancing regulations while at the same time allowing people space and time to admire the objects on display. For that reason, our dedicated Magna Carta room has been closed, but fear not. Both Magna Carta, in the original version issued by King John in June 1215, plus the papal bull which annulled it weeks later, have been moved to the Historical Documents cases in the centre of the gallery, where they will have more room to breathe. Fun fact: did you know that Pope Innocent III, writing in August 1215, described Magna Carta as ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people’, and declared this now famous document to be ‘null, and void of all validity for ever’?

We’re delighted to say that a significant number of our greatest historical and literary treasures remain on display, to the wonder of many first-time visitors. These range from pages of one of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci to the writing desk of Jane Austen, and from Shakespeare’s First Folio to Michelangelo’s anatomical illustrations. Our collections are truly global, and this is reflected in items such as the Ma’il Qur’an (the Library's oldest Qur'an manuscript) and Codex Sinaiticus (an early manuscript of the Bible, and the first to contain the complete New Testament). Another fun fact: Leonardo wrote in mirror handwriting (please don’t complain if you think his notebook is upside down).

Also on display, on the 200th anniversary of her birth, is Florence Nightingale’s original Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East. Nearby is a poignant letter by the composer and anti-slavery campaigner Charles Ignatius Sancho, author of one of the earliest accounts of slavery written by a former enslaved person. We have Andrea Levy’s working drafts for Small Island and The Long Song, and the laboratory notes of Marilyn Monk and Cathy Holding, pioneers of genetic diagnosis. It’s estimated that the British Library holds upwards of 170 million collection items, growing by several kilometres of shelf space per year. Of course, it’s impossible to display everything, but in the Treasures Gallery it’s always possible to stand on one spot, to rotate 360 degrees, and to gaze in admiration at old favourites and newly-discovered gems.

One thing that visitors may notice is that we’ve increased the number of items in the gallery that were composed or owned by women. We were already working actively towards this when lockdown fell upon us. Over the past few months it has been impossible for our curators, conservators and exhibitions staff to access the Library’s collections, meaning that this remains a work in progress; but we do have an active and long-standing commitment to represent diversity in the Treasures Gallery. If you are able to come to St Pancras, we’d highly recommend, for example, that you look out for our Art of the Book display, which is dedicated to women artists including Karen Bleitz, Joumana Medlej, Christine Tacq and Angela Lorenz.

Before you book your free ticket, please take a look at our Treasures Gallery page, which includes information on how to plan your visit, data protection, and track and trace, all for your own comfort and safety. Most importantly, we hope you all keep safe and well (Florence Nightingale would approve), and that we can welcome you once more to view some of the highlights from our awe-inspiring collections.

Julian Harrison

Lead Curator, Medieval Historical and Literary Manuscripts

21 August 2020

The History of Parliament Trust Oral History Project: Q&A with Dr Emma Peplow

Parliament-pic-smallerThe British Library and the History of Parliament Trust joined forces in 2011 on the collaborative Oral History Project which aims to interview as many former MPs as possible to reflect on their parliamentary careers. So far over 160 former MPs have been interviewed, providing first-hand testimony of the past and a truly unique record of post-Second World War British political history. You can listen to 50 of the interviews in full at the British Library’s Sound Archive or explore the Library’s wider collections of oral histories of politics and Government here.

Our major Exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight For Women’s Rights has been rescheduled to open later this autumn. We spoke with Dr Emma Peplow, Head of Development at the History of Parliament Trust and asked her about the Oral History Project and reflecting the theme of the upcoming exhibition, we asked her what she learnt about the changing experience of female MP’s during this period. Emma and her colleague, Dr Priscila Pivatto, have recently published a book: The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs based on the archive.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Oral History Project, how it came about and why you think it is an important project?

The History of Parliament Trust began its Oral History Project in 2011, aiming to interview as many former MPs as possible about their lives and careers. It was inspired by our founder – Josiah Wedgwood MP – who in the 1930s sent out a questionnaire to MPs who sat between 1885 and 1918. He wanted to capture their ‘minds not deeds,’ so an oral history project seemed to us the best way to revive his idea. Its real strength is in the personal stories it has captured, and in getting behind the scenes of everyday life in Parliament – what it felt like to walk the corridors of power, face pressure from the Whips, and gossip in the tea rooms and bars!

You interview MPs from different parties, different generations [1960s-2000s] and you touch on many different topics. Can you tell us a little bit about what the conversations taught you about the experience of female MPs in Parliament at that time and the environment they found themselves in?

Before 1997 there were very few women in Parliament, and although they were made welcome by some of their colleagues (just tolerated by others!) Parliament was a very male institution – designed by men, for men. Some of our interviewees were not bothered by this, but others faced outright discrimination and even sexual harassment by their colleagues. They might have had to work up courage to go into the male-dominated smoking room (Elizabeth Peacock can be heard talking about this on a clip here), or fight to speak on a defence or international affairs bill.

After 1997 the numbers increased dramatically, and women drove changes in the working hours and atmosphere of the House. Women still faced difficulties and discrimination, but they did make Parliament friendlier for them.

Women entering politics during the post-war period had many barriers to overcome – including the sexism, the drinking culture and the late nights of voting. What do you think was the most significant barrier facing female MPs and do you think many of these persist today?

In many ways the most significant barrier faced by women was getting in to Parliament. Before the Labour party introduced All Women Shortlists for the 1997 election many of our interviewees really struggled to find a seat. Many local selection committees simply expected their MP would be a man – and a straight, white, married man at that. Conservative women described selection committees asking them how they would look after their children if they were elected; whereas Labour women might face the problem of not being accepted in the pub or working men’s club. Women felt that they had to be three or four times better than their male rivals for selection panels to choose them, and men also acknowledged they benefitted from this bias.

In this case things certainly have improved after 1997. Many more women are being selected to be MPs, and are accepted as ‘MP material’, even if other barriers mean that there aren’t an equal number of men and women applying for seats.

The British Library’s upcoming major exhibition ‘’Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights’’ (which has  been rescheduled for later this year) explores how feminist activism in the UK is rooted in the long and complex history of women’s rights. It looks at how protest and self-expression has shaped the fight for equality – for example through the innovative use of subversive art and music, and humour and imagination to demand change.

Can you tell us of the ways that women in politics have fought with imagination, humour and tenacity to insist on change?

Women in politics have certainly had to keep their tenacity and sense of humour in the face of an institution that is extremely reluctant to change! The examples are many and wide-ranging: in 1974 Helene Hayman was told by the Speaker she shouldn’t sit with the other women because he couldn’t tell them apart, so she chose to sit next to Willie Ross. Whilst for the Conservatives, Jill Knight laughed off being considered ‘not a nice girl’ for heading in to the Smoking Room with the men (you can hear this clip on our website). On more serious note Labour MP Hilary Armstrong described the fight to convince the Labour party to accept All-Women Shortlists, and then the later legal challenges that this policy faced. Changing the culture in the Commons took more than just an increase in numbers - those who suggested a crèche when they arrived in 1997 had to wait until 2009 before one opened.

We know inequality is experienced differently depending on race, gender identity, class and sexuality, which is also a theme that features in the exhibition. Reflecting on the archives, do you get a sense of MP’s raising these issues?

Yes - MPs do raise issues of inequalities, but the picture is quite complicated. We certainly have women from working class backgrounds who struggled to fit in with Commons culture. Labour MP Alice Mahon told us 'the class divide hit me smack in the face' and described the problems she encountered because of her strong accent. However, other working class women told us that they immediately felt at home. Some of our interviewees mention hearing homophobic comments made towards lesbian MPs, although in our interview Chris Smith, the first MP to choose to come out, he described his colleagues as being largely supportive and respectful.

Both male and female MPs reflected that 1997 marked a serious change of personnel in the Commons. Many praised the wider diversity in MPs after 1997: more from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, more women, more who had a disability. Yet others lamented that the old class differences had disappeared -MPs were less likely to be white men, but were much more likely to have a university education than to a background in a trade or a union. For these interviewees, Parliament had become less representative of different classes.

The fight for women’s rights isn’t exclusively a woman’s fight. We know that men have to be part of the resistance too.

Are there instances in your conversations where male MPs have led the fight in Parliament, or supported female MPs in changing rules and structures to advance female empowerment in Parliament and across the country?

Yes – in the 1960s it was mostly men who led the campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion. At this time men had to lead the way, as there were very few women in Parliament! The private member’s bill that led to the change was introduced by Liberal leader David Steel, and Labour MP Peter Jackson became the unofficial whip for the legislation (you can hear Peter Jackson discussing his decision to support this legislation on our website).

Sadly though most of the men in our archive did not mention gender relations at all – other than the odd remark about the change in 1997.


The Representation of the People Act of 1918, gave women over 30 the right to vote (for the same voting rights as men, women had to wait until 1928). Out of all the parliamentary reform Bills, this Act enfranchised the largest number of people. © UK Parliament

There are 220 female MPs in Parliament in 2020 – the highest number ever but falls short of reflecting society as a whole.  What do you think is the ultimate ‘’Unfinished Business’’ for women in Parliament and in politics generally?  And if someone in 20-30 years’ time looks back at the environment for women in Parliament today, what do you think might be the one thing they might find most difficult to comprehend about the state of politics today? 

Listening to our interviews, the abuse that women MPs (and MPs in general) faced via hate mail from the ‘green ink brigade’ in the past sounds very familiar to online abuse faced by female politicians today. That said, most interviewees felt that the abuse they received was nothing compared to the volume female MPs experience nowadays. Hopefully that will become a barrier to women’s involvement that will seem difficult for future women to comprehend.  

If you had the chance to interview any woman in history – past or present - who would it be and why?

Barbara Castle – there are some great stories about her in our archive, and I’d love to talk to her about the Equal Pay Act.

Barbara-castle-smallerPhoto from


Dr Emma Peplow is Head of Development responsible for developing the History of Parliament Trust’s Oral History Project, new project funding and areas of the website.

She is currently working, with Dr Priscila Pivatto, on publications based on the oral history project interviews. The first book - an introduction to the interviews was published by Bloomsbury Academic in August 2020. 

Previously she worked as a Research Associate at the Marylebone Cricket Club Museum, running 'Taking the Field', an oral history project that is creating a collection of digital stories on the importance of grassroots cricket clubs to their communities in the UK and Sri Lanka. Before joining MCC, she completed a PhD in International History at the London School of Economics on The Western Allies in Berlin, 1945-48: Relations at the Ground Level and taught at the LSE until 2018.


Interview by Blerina Hashani

Public Policy Officer


Lead image:  State Opening of Parliament, December 2019. A picture of the first female Black Rod, Sarah Clarke. ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor