Taking Liberties @ The British Library

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Olive Wharry’s prison scrapbook, 1911-12: Imprisoned in Holloway for an incendiary attack on Kew Refreshment Pavilion. Wharry recorded her brutal treatment in Holloway with charm, intelligence and bravery. Courtesy of the British Library.

Mounting an engaging exhibition tracing the history of political and personal rights in Britain is no mean feat. From Magna Carta 1215 to the 42 days debate of this summer, 1000 years of the fight for freedoms and rights are considered in the British Library’s major new exhibition, Taking Liberties.

Starting with the development of political rights concerning liberty, the law, Parliament, monarch and people and the creation of the UK, Taking Liberties mixes original texts with case studies and contemporary commentary. Iconic documents are beautifully presented: one of the original Magna Carta copies provokes handwriting envy with its tiny, ornate script; Charles I’s death warrant is stamped by a bank of scarlet seals, popularly sealing the fate of the King like bloody thumbprints; the ancient Bill of Rights is written out on a giant till roll, the Act of Union that never was has an accessorised skirt of signatories’ seals; there are original National Insurance stamps from 90 years ago and the personal scrapbook of Olive Wharry, imprisoned suffragette from 1913.

Covering the development of human rights as a concept the exhibition also examines the emergence of welfare, the abolition of slavery, female enfranchisement and gay rights as well as freedom thought, exemplified in the notebook of William Blake, propped open at the “mind forg’d manacles” of London.

There’s a lot to take in. Should you need a break, you can interact. Each visitor can pick up a barcoded wristband. Interactive terminals are dotted about. Scan yourself in and you can browse the pertinent issues of the day and have your say. Vote on issues like the prevalence of CCTV, DNA databases, stop and search powers, the monarchy and euthanasia and see how your views fit with others at the end of the show in an impressive (mind boggling) projected data wheel as you exit. Or not, if you feel your personal liberties are being violated.

For the first time, there’s a curator’s blog on which affable Matthew Shaw hopes to be able to comment on current affairs in relation to Taking Liberties and to feedback trends on the interactive discussions. We’ll be watching with interest.

Finally, if you’re dodging traditional and new fangled Asda sponsored Halloween festivities this week you could join a special late at the Library with songs of freedom and protest in the entrance hall instead, from 19.30-23.00, just ÂŁ5. You should also check out the excellent events programme.

Taking Liberties is at the British Library, free admission, until 1 March 2009. Check out more photos of the Exhibition by Chris Osburn.

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