The exhibition runs chronologically, with the first section exploring the reign of King John and examining the events leading up to, and immediately after, the civil war that broke out between the King and his barons. In the next section moves through the centuries to the colonial era, then hops across the Atlantic to the founding of the United States of America. The exhibition’s final sections deal with the Magna Carta in the modern age, both in Britain and abroad, and brings us right up to date with recent controversies surrounding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, made law in Britain in 2005 before being repealed in 2011. The Magna Carta itself – two of four original copies that survive – is left until the very end, which serves as a nice way of bringing us full circle.
Much as you would probably expect from the British Library, and as I have experienced in the past with their exhibitions, the vast majority of the artefacts consist of some kind of text, and so a large amount of reading is required to really appreciate or connect with any of the items on display. Even the completely incomprehensible medieval manuscripts that dominate the first section, written in either Latin or Anglo-Norman French, have their most important or relevant passages highlighted on an accompanying display alongside a translation. Which, along with the detailed explanations of their significance to the Magna Carta story, serve as a great way to allow visitors to engage with all this mysterious old writing. But, all in all, it amounts to a hell of a lot of reading, which brings me to the only possible criticism I can make of this marvellous exhibition, which is that it is all rather exhausting by the end. Thankfully, there are breaks in between the reading, in the shape of short interview segments playing on television screens that provide a wonderfully concise summing-up of the themes and ideas explored in each section of the exhibition. Among the various law, politics and medieval history academics, we get to hear the thoughts of William Hague, Bill Clinton, and Burmese opposition leader (and former political prisoner) Aung San Suu Kyi. Just as I discovered with 2013’s Propaganda: Power & Persuasion, these little interviews provided the exhibition’s most interesting and informative insights of all, and I urge visitors to take the time to stop and listen to them.
Along with all the parchments, pamphlets and papers, there are also some beautiful ‘scene-setting’ artefacts on loan from other museums. Most of them seem concentrated in the first section of the exhibition, such as one of King John’s ornately decorated ivory hunting horns, a beautifully illustrated Plantagenet family tree (emphasising the dynasty’s both Norman and Saxon ancestry), and some curious little objects called tally sticks, which were used by creditors to record payments made to them. There is even two of King John’s teeth on display, recovered from his tomb in Worcester Cathedral in the nineteenth century.
Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy runs at the British Library until 1 September 2015. Tickets cost £12 for adults, with a number of concessions available (book here).