Do The Write Thing: Visit The British Library's Fantastic Exhibition On The History Of Writing

Making Your Mark, The British Library ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 56 months ago

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Do The Write Thing: Visit The British Library's Fantastic Exhibition On The History Of Writing Making Your Mark, The British Library 4
The oldest item in The British Library's collection is this tablet of hieroglyphs setting out a hymn for Osiris. Photo: Tony Antoniou.

You'll never look at the humble payslip in the same way again  after visiting The British Library's exhibition on writing and its history. It's here we discover that a 5,000 year old Mesopotamian tablet set out how barley portions should be distributed as a wage to farm labourers. Millennia have passed, but it's not that different from the system that exists today — it's impressive to know that our payslip on screen has a legacy that stretches back to the earliest stages of civilisation.

The exhibition focuses on the writing we see all around us and take for granted, delving into its history, how it evolved and what the future holds for writing.

Writing largely came about for record-keeping so that goods could be counted, or as in the case of a 2,500BC Mesomaerican tablet, to record who ruled over which kingdoms. It's these early historians and accountants who are responsible for something that has become so essential to humanity that every child has to learn how to write at school.  

The earliest incarnation of the letter A may be found on this Sphinx, though it is sideways. Image: The British Museum.

The British Library's research is as meticulous as ever and it's fascinating to learn that the letter A was originally an ox head, as part of a phonetic alphabet that was proposed as an alternative to the hieroglyphs used by Egyptians. Over time, 'A' passed through the Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans, during which it got flipped over and became more abstract before being used as the first letter of our modern day alphabet.

A lengthy beautiful Roman scroll displays cursive, or joined up, writing, showing that it was an invention for writing at speed, and was much easier if lower case letters were used. It was only in the late 700s that it was decided sentences should start with an upper case letter for clarity and consistency.

Writing in stone, on metal and a hand operated press is all covered in a section looking at the actual process of writing, with the invention of metal nibs bringing about the end of writing with quills. Now all methods of writing equipment are overshadowed by the ever dependable BIC Cristal biro — a pen that still sells in the millions every day.

Do computers mark the beginning of the end for writing? Photo: Tony Antoniou.

An early Apple Mac acts as the potential death knell for writing, as computers and smartphones mean most people barely write any more. Writing may have started out as purely functional but now it's seen more as a luxury when trying to show a personal touch. Ask anyone when they last wrote some prose and it's likely to draw a lot of blank faces.

Who knows, maybe in a hundred years time maybe we'll all have forgotten how to write and putting pen to paper may feel strange for our descendants. The future may be uncertain, but The British Library has done a fantastic job in bringing the history of writing to life with beautiful books and impressive stories.

Writing: Making Your Mark is at The British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019. Tickets are £14.

Last Updated 25 April 2019