The first thing that hits you about this exhibition is ‘why the hell did it take them so long?’. A subject as fascinating as the history of our language would seem a no-brainer for an institution like the British Library. Indeed, nowhere else on Earth could muster such an impressive collection of exhibits on the topic. Who but the British Library has a 1000-year old copy of Beowulf, a Wycliffe bible, a Victorian Mr-Kite-style circus poster and a copy of Viz laying around on its shelves?
95% of the exhibits are drawn from the Library’s store rooms, and a very impressive medley it makes. The history and evolution of English is explored with displays on Old English, slang, swearing, global variations, pidgins, accents and patois, humour, specialist usage and a dozen other themes. The rich mixture and sharp contrasts between very old and very new offer an experience as delightfully jumbled as the language itself. It’s like somebody curated Gyles Brandreth’s brain.
The layout is a triumph. Most British Library exhibitions have tried to cram in far too much, kettling and corraling visitors around a labyrinth of partitions. Here, the room is fully exposed, with most exhibits hugging the edges. An impressive projection screen runs around the top of the walls, offering key quotes and dates of interesting word coinages. The result is a roomy, relaxed, even embiggened environment in which to browse the messy but fascinating history of our language. A totally cromulent experience.