on April 22, 2008
Near Euston Station, and adjacent to the newly renovated and resuscitated St. Pancras Station, sits one of London’s best places to visit. The British Library is the UK equivalent of the Library of Congress, but only received its own building in 1998. Until then, it was housed in the British Museum, which cramped both institutions. The new building is about a mile straight north of the British Museum, and its size makes it hard to imagine how it could ever have been relegated to sharing space. The website claims it was the largest building 20th century building constructed in the UK, but for most visitors, it hides its size well. You enter through a gate off Euston Street, with ‘British Library’ repeated three teams in wrought iron, which seemed an appropriate entrance for a building full of texts. In the courtyard, a large bronze Newton crouches, measuring some small piece of the world. It’s a strange turn on an image from Blake, who hated Newton’s worldview (which, as an alchemist, was not quite what we think of as scientific). I thought it was an odd image when I first saw it in 2001: I envision Newton looking outward at the world and the universe, not peering at the ground. Understanding that the sculpture is an insult turned into an heroic image (as noted in this this insightful post) makes the pose understandable, if not the sculptor’s thinking—or the Library’s thinking in making this highly ambiguous statement a centerpiece of the building.Inside, a large lobby opens to a set of stairs. At the top sits a four-story glass room that seems suspended inside the building. It appears to house rare books, with catwalks around the exterior aside the glass walls. In front, on your left, is a statue of Shakespeare, and an announcement that HM Queen Elizabeth dedicated the building. The excellent bookstore is directly on your left, and in between this and the Queen is the entrance to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, which holds the "Treasures of the British Library."‘Treasures of the world’ is more like it. Collected in this modest space is a comprehensive look at texts, maps and cultures from around the globe. Of course, It is the British Library, so there’s no shortage of authors and artifacts from the Isles: Shakespeare is well represented, with a copy of the First Folio, the Sonnets, and his mortgage displayed on the left of what’s likely to be the first case you encounter in the gallery. On the right are letters from by QE I, responding to the strong suggestions of many peers that she find a husband and ensure a clean line of succession. (She vows to do so; what might have happened if she’d kept her word?) Behind you are an amazing collection of volumes from English literature: manuscripts from Austen and Bronte, Hardy and Conrad, and—most impressive to me—John Milton’s Commonplace book, opened to pages where he makes notes and ruminates on the nature of kingship (would this have been written if Elizabeth had married?).In other displays are sacred texts, including a Gutenberg Bible. The 8th century Lindisfarne Gospels were unfortunately rotated off display, to return in October. Also missed was William Tyndale’s Bible, the first in English. But leaves of the Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest complete Christian Bible, are also here. The Diamond Sutra, a 9th century Buddhist document from China, is likely the world’s oldest printed object. At the back, there’s a separate room for the Magna Carta, which is more of a hallway. The lights are lower in here, to preserve the documents. Unfortunately, the 1215 version was off display during our visit, but other less historical copies are there, along with a good exhibit on what the Carta is (and is not). Particularly interesting to me was a copy of a papal bull denouncing the Magna Carta.The exhibits continue on into science with copies of Galileo’s masterpiece Sidereus Nuncius, Newton’s Principia, and a letter from Newton to his archenemy Robert Hooke (OK, so he had more than one archenemy). Da Vinci, Harvey and others are also represented, along with a letter to Igo author Idler's hero, Alfred Russel Wallace, from that other evolutionary thinker, C. Darwin. In the music cases are manuscripts from Bach, Mozart and others, and a libretto from phileasfogg’s dream concert, the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. My teen Beatles fan was engrossed by the dozen or so items on loan from the Fab Four, including what looked like handwritten compositions or lyrics for In My Life, Ticket to Ride, Help, and Yesterday. She didn’t know this was coming, but it was one of the Beatles stops we’d hoped to make during our trip.We all got so engrossed here that we nearly missed the other highlight of our first day in London: a London Walks outing on Harry Potter. If we hadn’t scurried out to catch the Tube at Euston Station, we could easily have spent another hour here. As it was, we only lured one of our kids out of the bookstore with the possibility of a second visit, which unfortunately won’t come to pass until the next trip.
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