11 February 2021
For the past three years the British Library and public libraries in the Living Knowledge Network – a UK-wide partnership of national and public libraries – have collaborated on exhibitions. This year we were thrilled to be working on Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, with 26 pop-up exhibitions taking place in physical library buildings.
Over the challenges of the last few months, libraries across the UK have demonstrated they are still open and active, despite the lockdown measures restricting their services and physical spaces. Many libraries have continued to offer book lending services via click and collect, have supported the Covid response of their local council and continued to programme online events and activities. While it was initially daunting to think about how libraries could continue the UK-wide exhibition, they have shown incredible innovation and versatility in not only keeping it alive, but injecting new vitality into it.
It has been inspiring to see how libraries have continued to celebrate and explore the themes of the Unfinished Business exhibition in the digital sphere, which has been creatively brought to life in 26 libraries across the UK, from Exeter to Aberdeen, Norfolk to Sheffield. Public libraries have programmed a wide range of events, including in-conversation discussions with local historians and activists, creative workshops, themed book groups and author talks. Through their events, libraries have surfaced the lives and achievements of many unsung local pioneers who have played a huge role in advancing the fight for women’s rights.
Particular highlights have included Suffolk libraries’ programme of talks exploring broad themes of the exhibition. Still to come: Exeter Library will be hosting the acclaimed poet Tolu Agbelusi as writer-in-residence during the months of February and March, who will be running a series of exciting interactive events, all with a focus of exploring the stories of Exeter’s women. Workshops have also proved popular for younger audiences across the Network, including a Zine Workshop led by Cherry Styles from Salford Zine Library hosted by library staff from Kirklees.
Libraries have also responded by creating virtual exhibitions, including Norfolk Library’s fascinating exploration of women who were at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and 80s, showing how they connected to national and international feminist campaigns. The exhibition also unveils the stories behind Rosie’s Plaques, the handmade unofficial blue plaques celebrating local historic women who appeared on the streets of Norwich in 2019, and includes a Norfolk Women of History hall of fame, shining a light on the little-known, but incredibly important narratives behind the fight for equality of opportunity.
A digital showcase has also been created by Warwickshire Libraries illuminating the stories of the area’s suffragette movement, reflecting on the experiences of Warwickshire women in WWII through the Land Army and highlighting the life stories of novelist George Eliot and botanist, Dorothy Adlington Cadbury. Additionally, Leeds Libraries have created a virtual tour of items from their special collections, which help illustrate the accomplishments of inspirational local women from the past and present via the themes of mind, body and voice.
To complement the work of libraries, events from the British Library have also been live streamed throughout the period while libraries have been unable to fully open, bringing live events featuring the likes of Dolly Parton and Gloria Steinem to people’s homes via a freely accessible archive.
Last week the Network hit a milestone, with the first co-produced Unfinished Business event going live. ‘On this Day She: Putting Women Back into History One Day at a Time’ was a collaboration by the British Library, Warwickshire County Council and the West Midlands Readers' Network. The recording is now available to watch again. Join authors Jo Bell, Tania Hershman, Ailsa Holland and Imogen Church as they discuss the forgotten women of history and their place in the national story for the fight for equality.
Project Officer, Living Knowledge Network
25 August 2020
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.
Lead Curator, Medieval Historical and Literary Manuscripts