Friday 8 June 2012

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

 From the moment I heard about this exhibition I had high hopes. The British Library always do fantastic exhibitions, and this just sounding fascinating. Entering the exhibition gallery, the design was spot on as always. More stripped back than some of the designs for previous exhibitions, but just right. The exhibition was split into six sections; rural dreams, dark satanic mills, wild places, beyond the city, cockney visions, and waterlands. Don't they just sound so enticing! For several sections they had created soundscapes to help fully immerse you in that particular section.
There were some utterly fantastic items on display, spanning the centuries. Plenty of medieval manuscripts, but also those created far more recently - J. K. Rowling, and Ian McEwan spring to mind. Often modern and historic documents were side by side. This was particularly noticable in the 'rural dreams' section, highlighting the fact concerns about the changing face of Britain have not changed all that much. The section started with a look at the green man, and the various myths surrounding him, which included a range of material, including a manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. ‘Rural dreams’ also contained a painting by J. R. R. Tolkein. Something that came out quite strongly throughout the exhibition for me was the importance of images with texts.
'Dark satanic mills' focused on the industrial revolution onwards. The atmosphere changed from that of the ‘rural dreams’ section whereby paintings and pictures were on display of rural scenes, to this dark section, industrial sounds playing in the background, photos of smoke gushing from factory chimneys along the top of the display cases. It was interesting to read about how very different reactions were to these developments; some writers focusing on the benefits of developments, others on what was being lost. There were texts with painfully detailed descriptions of the living conditions of the workers in industrial towns.
Next was the ‘wild places’ section. The name instantly brought to mind the Brontës and also Hardy’s Return of the Native. I wasn’t disappointed; here there were handwritten treasures from Emily Brontë and also mentions of the famous Egdon Heath of Return of the Native, so beautifully described throughout. Also included in this section was a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales. Having studied the contents of this text previously it was rather exciting to see the original document. 
The ‘beyond the city’ section was laid out interestingly, each display case in its own little compartment. I have to say my favourite section of this was the metroland part. The idea of creating a whole vision of how nice the suburbs of London could be with the spreading of the underground, and the poem written about the towns on the metropolitan line which you could listen to through headphones really touched a chord with me. I also found the idea that places that once seemed so far away (the example given being Islington) now seem much closer fascinating.
Next onto ‘cockney visions’ and the main section on London. Walking through London has inspired many a writer, both with its beauty, and the horrors within, and this was captured wonderfully by the pieces on display. I particularly enjoyed the picture of the white rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, dressed as a City businessman, rushing around, and descending down into the underground.
Finally onto the ‘waterlands’ section. I admit by this point my concentration was wavering, which was a great shame as there was still so much to see. Again, the atmosphere was set with sounds, and images, and the odd video clip. The creation of the idea of the seaside town, and the both positive and negative portrayals this led to, as well as the importance of the Thames, and Britain as an island nation were all brought out in this final area.
Overall, another wonderful exhibition from the British Library. There was almost too much to see. A wonderful selection of material from all different centuries. This really shows Britain, and British talent at its best. It gives a real appreciation for the ever changing landscape of Britain, the beauty and danger of the wild countryside, the contrast between the wealth and poverty in the large cities, and how this wonderful country has inspired so many. The exhibition also featured an interactive map with people’s comments on areas of the country which they associate heavily with particular texts or authors. (If you wish to contribute, or to have a look at other’s thoughts visit This map certainly brought home the idea that not only does Britain inspire authors, but also that certain areas have now become synonymous with particular scenes in stories, or with the authors themselves. I certainly went away with a new appreciation of the landscape of Britain, as well as many new pieces of literature to delve into. 
The exhibition runs until 25th September 2012.

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