Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

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version issued by King John in June 1215, plus the papal bull which annulled it weeks later, have been moved to the Historical Documents cases in the centre of the gallery, where they will have more room to breathe.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