Treasure hunting in the British Library
With unreliable weather and summer holidays on the horizon, having a few plans for those not-so-sunny days up your sleeve is not a bad idea. The permanent exhibition Treasures of the British Library in London is a grotto of gems, well worth exploring. It is also free!
A plaque at the entrance promises to show the legacy of human thought and creativity, as recorded through words, sounds and images. I was not disappointed.
Instantly moved by the magnitude of
learning and history surrounding me, my inner traveller was quickly drawn to
the maps. A medieval map, drawn up in 1350 by a Chester Monk, Ranult Higden,
was impressive, but even more extraordinary was the fact that it had been a
part of the collection here since 1757.
I hovered by a sketch of London, showing the vista before and after the great fire commissioned by King Charles II in 1666. Lingering, I tried to comprehend the horrific scale of devastation people lived through – a pretty raw deal for the survivors of the Great Plague that swept through the city only a year before. Shaking off a shiver I moved on.
By fluke I synchronized my visit with a guided tour for a school class, most likely studying for their history exams. I found myself immersed in, and humbled by their observations of the exhibits – they undoubtedly knew a lot more than me, facts still fresh in their young and fertile minds. How quickly untended information tends to slip out of our awareness. I indulged in a little daydream, that maybe, just maybe, one of these keen kids might go on to contribute to the tremendous pool of wisdom captured here.
Next was the extensive collection of scriptures and sacred texts from world religions, spanning the spectrum from Buddhism to Judaism, through most other major beliefs.
A highlight in this segment was a Jain invitation roll from 1744, exquisitely adorned with pictures of lotus flowers, fountains, swastikas and a temple. Not having heard of Jainism before, I learnt that it’s an Indian religion, promoting pacifism and personal work towards divine consciousness. The scroll was used to invite and entice influential Jain monks and their entourage to spend the monsoon season at the home of wealthy followers, by showing them the delights of the host city. Should the monk decide to bestow his presence on you, prestige and merit would follow. Admiring the pictures, I could almost hear the water trickling in the fountains and smell the lotus flowers – if I was a Jain monk I would have been very tempted.
I loitered as a group of students energetically debated the use of swastikas throughout history. To see it used as a religious symbol on sacred scripts served as a powerful reminder that, although inextricably connected to the Nazis in our modern day consciousness, this symbol has been used for eons for altogether more peaceful purposes.
Again and again I was bowled over by bookish bling and as I reveled in gold leaf galore, brilliant colours bounced off the pages. After gawping at umpteen examples of super shiny bibles, I realized that the ultimate status symbol of times past wasn’t a mansion, flash cars or diamonds - it was a sacred book, commissioned by you or your family. How times have changed!
The oldest surviving bible, the Codex Sinaiticus from the 4th century, was an altogether more modest affair and the earliest book on record containing both the old and the new testament. Written on vellum parchment made from donkey or antelope skin it supposedly required the skins of 360 animals to produce. I can’t help think that even the most vehement vegetarian might agree that, somewhere, out there in the bigger scheme of things, those unfortunate animals achieved immortality. I quietly salute them for their place in history.
A tiny room displayed the Magna Carta and related documents. This significant treaty was the first to recognize human rights, by protecting the common people from feudal abuse and subjecting the King to the rule of law. Captivated by my proximity to a document of such impact, I could almost feel the pulse of its legacy pumping.
I emerged, stumbling into another school activity, this time discussing the pros and cons of internet research. I dawdled, eavesdropping, as an ever so well dressed gentleman tried to convey the importance of libraries. Not an easy task with students for whom the idea of a world without the internet is unfathomable.
A case displaying letters from leading thinkers was next. First up was a letter from Freud, outlining his ideas about the power of dreams. His handwriting was dramatic and by its tilt I could picture precisely how he must have sat at his desk writing it. He would have bent over, leant to the right and passionately penned his points, during a time when society had all but lost respect for dreams.
Next was a letter from Darwin, responding to a friend’s scathing attack on his work on evolution: On the Origin of Species. I took a moment to consider and respect the extent to which leading thinkers are likely to become pariahs of their times, suffering for their ideas. Luckily, for the rest of us, many persevere. I wonder how many more innovative ideas might develop if only society was a little more tolerant and open to new thought.
The last, but for me the most emotive part of the exhibition, was about the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1911-12. As I read Scott’s diary entries I was spellbound and felt transported to the Antarctic: Huddled up in a freezing tent with a hollow feeling inside of what is to come. Certain death, accompanied by the sound of the howling wind.
The most poignant entry was surprisingly not Scott’s last, but the page recounting the day they reached the pole, only to discover that Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team got there first. In this very same entry Scott not only admits defeat, but also realizes for the first time that they may not survive the journey home. I was transfixed by an eerie photo of the polar team in front of their tent, developed from a film found with the frozen bodies. That they finally succumbed only 11 miles from their supply station is a tragedy. What is for certain is that Scott and Amundsen were incurable explorers - Amundsen himself disappeared in flight and died almost exactly 85 years ago today on 18 June 1928.
These were by no means the only worthy items in this superb exhibition – there were simply too many to cover or even count. In my opinion, this display of splendor is quite simply a must for old and young alike to discover and marvel at themselves.
Whereas the exhibition is free for everyone, please consider making a donation in one of the boxes in the front hall of the library. Exhibitions like these are expensive to maintain and every little helps!
The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, open seven days a week. Check the website for exact opening times: www.bl.uk or call on tel: 01937 546060.