Monday, March 19, 2007

The British Library, briefly

If you've ever wondered what people mean by Britain's "cultural heritage", one answer is close at hand: just pop into the British Library (motto: "If it's printed, we've got it. Yes, even porn") in King's Cross.

The BL, in its St. Pancras building which resembles nothing so much as a garden centre (you almost expect to bump into rose bushes and terracotta pots in the foyer), has a permanent exhibition of some of its masterpieces. Turn left after the entrance and head for the extremely dark Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

Even a quick list should convey just what a trove this is: Shakespeare's First Folio, the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, manuscripts of Chaucer, Dickens and Joyce, the Beatles' handwritten lyrics... That's just some of the British stuff: there are also Leonardo's notebooks, Mozart's scores, early versions of the New Testament, the Torah, the Qur'an.

I like the idea of displaying cultural and historical milestones, since it reifies rather abstract ideas or situations: the King promising to heed the barons or the process of writing shown via marked-up manuscripts.

But I do have a slight difficulty with this approach. This is history according to its great moments, the sort of history which loves dynamic personalities and dramatic actions but which finds it hard to assimilate the dreary, the daily, the stuff which constitutes most of human existence. I love these treasures as much as the next history-obsessed cultural devotee, but I'm also well aware of all those cultural artefacts which arrive and depart with less fanfare.

The true value of the British Library is not just in the glamorous display of its crown jewels but in its horde of everything else: these are the items which give us a fuller picture of British history in its more mundane but equally real aspects. As much as I like these items, they are not our entirety - that's what we have the rest of the British Library for.

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