“In some countries you wouldn’t have the right to visit this exhibition about your rights.”
The handout for the British Library’s exhibition makes its point emphatically. You might look at some of the documents displayed here and think they are just dry, dusty old bits of paper – but the history of British freedom is a long one, and without that history, we wouldn’t have the freedom to live our lives as we do.
When I was at school I got the benefit of what could broadly be called the Whig view of history – Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the extension of suffrage, were all shown as a great tradition of progress. Actually, the history of liberty is much more chequered than that would indicate – and there are different traditions, too, spreading liberty at grass roots level rather than, as in the Whig history, dispensing it graciously from the top down. I was impressed by the Laws of Hywel Dda and a decree of Robert the Bruce, as well as by the heterodox libertarianism of John Lilburne and Thomas Rainsborough, seventeenth century revolutionaries.
The exhibition also includes audio visual content such as a discussion of the current controversy over detention without charge, an interview with public executioner Albert Pierrpoint (chilling in its matter-of-factness), and two immigrants from India and the Caribbean in the 1950s talking about their experiences.
The exhibition comes right up to date with a section on gay rights and the work of Stonewall and Outrage, as well as recent developments such as the Human Rights Act.
Some of the exhibits bring you so close to history you can practically smell it. Here you’ll find Charles I’s death warrant. Cromwell’s signature is not at the top, but third in line. You’ll also see one of only four extant copies of Magna Carta.
The exhibition is also interactive. Visitors are able to vote on various issues, using wristbands issued at the exhibition. (What I found intriguing was that the experience of wearing a wristband to go round the exhibition was a bit like wearing handcuffs or shackles. I wonder if that was intended?)
I found this a thought provoking exhibition. If you do go, allow yourself a good hour to wander around and browse the exhibits.
Where: The British Library, Euston Road NW1- King’s Cross tube
When: till 1 March 2009:930-6 weekdays (late opening till 8 on Tuesday); 930-5 Saturdays and 11-5 Sundays.
How much: free
Picture credit: Gaetan Lee on Flickr