Evolving English exhibition – ends 3 April 2011


British Library (Immediately next to St Pancras Station)

Entry is free to all the exhibitions mentioned

This is an exhibition I can wholeheartedly recommend.  The show  takes the visitor from the beginnings of English following the Germanic colonisation of England from the fifth (or even possibly the end of the fourth century onwards ) to the development of Old English through time and  its Norse additions to the transformation of Old to Middle English by the 13th century , substantially but not wholly as a consequence of the   Norman Conquest and its aftermath , which not only added many Norman-French words to the vocabulary but also  altered the syntax to something like that which we know today.  From there the story moves into ever more familiar ground as England becomes first the dominant language of English public life, then the language of the only world empire ever worthy of the name,   before evolving to  its present dominance of  the Internet and as arguably the nearest there is to a world language with more than  400 million speaking it as a first language and 1.6 billion as  a second language. Because of its world significance the exhibition is not parochial and provides ample space for the development of varieties of English outside of England. However, the amount of politically correct preaching is mercifully small.

With the British Library’s  magnificent  literary resources,  the exhibition  is able to illustrate every aspect of English over the centuries with original documents rather than reproductions.  Works of  great craftsmanship as well as literary  value jostle  with dictionaries,  newspapers, children’s books  street ballads, posters and eventually the Web.   There is everything from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle to the Sun newspaper.

Thankfully, the modern vogue for chaotic  thematic presentation is kept under restraint,  with the story of English being  largely told in chronological sequence .  The written commentary is lucid and the visual display of material attractive and  clear. The video commentaries are instructional rather than intrusive, with commentary by bona fide academics not celebrities , all of whom to judge from their speech are, wonder of wonders in this pc age,  white, middle class and  English.

The exhibition is substantial without being overwhelmingly large. Two hours will allow you to do it full justice.  Those with more time to spend will find a visit to the Sir John Ritblat gallery on the first floor provides further reward.  This  is a permanent display which  contains a dazzling  kaleidoscope of  outstanding manuscripts drawn from around the world , many gorgeously illuminated,  and important books and documents from the age of printing.  Important English manuscripts  in in languages other than English such as the Lindisfarne Gospels,   Magna Carta and the Sherborne Missal are on display together with many  English language documents, printed and manuscript , from later times.  The exhibition is not confined to the religious, constitutional and literary, containing documents of scientific, technological, historical,  political and musical interest.

There is also a temporary exhibition ()ends 27 2 2011) opposite the Ritblat gallery centred on Coleridge’ s “The rime of the Ancient Mariner”  which is worth a look.  All in all, the British Library has a very English look to it at present.

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3 Responses to Evolving English exhibition – ends 3 April 2011

  1. Wyrdtimes says:

    Can’t help thinking that the British Library would be far more potent as the the English Library in my opinion, http://www.el.eng

    The exhibition really sounds worth visiting – and going by BBC reports I had my doubts. If only trips to London didn’t cost quite so much.

  2. It does sound a wonderful exhibition. It would be great if it could go “On Tour” in order to give it a wider viewing, as Wyrdtimes says, London is an expensive place to visit if you live in the North.

    • The major museums and galleries including the BL do have travelling exhibitions and frequently make loans to exhibitions by others. Evolving English may be held elsewhere after the London exhibition ends. However, there are problems with this exhibition going on tour. It contains items such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the earliest manuscript of Beowulf and Caxton’s first book. Old parchment and paper is fragile. In addition, there would be the risk of theft.

      It is also worth remembering that the BL has a large dedicated area for temporary exhibitions, a vast stock of recordings, documents and books and great of on site expertise. Mounting an exhibition of this nature there is a good deal safer, easier and cheaper than it would be elsewhere.

      Having said all that, I do understand the frustration of those living a good distance from London.

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