London: “Writing: Making Your Mark” @ the BL

Am I alone in thinking that “Writing: Making Your Mark” is a really dull exhibition title? Well, for better or worse, that is the title of the BL’s current exhibition, which runs until 27th August (my birthday!). Admission is £14 (half off with Art Pass), and this is one where there probably isn’t any need to book ahead. Certainly the galleries were the emptiest I’d ever seen them when I went inside, though in typical BL style, some of my fellow visitors still seemed to go out of their way to be as irritating as possible: blocking cases whilst having extended conversations in front of them, bending down so far to read the signs that the entire case was obscured, and one very strange dedicated mother and teenage son duo who analysed everything single thing in every single one of the cases, even translating some of the foreign texts into English (the son made a valiant attempt to escape at one point, and totally ignored his mother calling him from across the exhibition, but she nabbed him in the end). So even though there were only about ten other people in there, they still all conspired to make my visit more of a trial than it needed have been.

Limestone Stela with Mayan Glyphs, BL.

Also complicating things was the BL’s usual prohibition on photography, which makes it especially difficult to talk retrospectively about an exhibition with a theme as, well, vague as this one (all photographs in this post, aside from the first one, are taken from the BL’s website). Like all of the BL’s PACCAR Gallery exhibitions, this was divided into sections, each as thrillingly titled as the exhibition itself: The Origins of Writing, Writing Systems and Styles, Materials and Technology, People and Writing, and The Future of Writing. These divisions weren’t always super clear, as most of the exhibition simply consisted of the written word, be it on the page, a stone tablet, or in the case of one of the most memorable objects, a piece of pottery that was used as a work permit giving a prostitute the right to ply her trade in the confines of a city (in Ancient Greece? I can’t remember, and I cannot decipher the writing on that shard (sherd). Somewhere in the ancient world anyway) for a day.

Prostitute Day Pass, BL.

The best thing about this exhibition was definitely the interactive elements, which I got to use for once, since the small number of other visitors strangely didn’t seem interested in them (they only cared about being annoying about the stuff in the cases, which I guess is good, in a way). These included tablets where you had to guess which language each writing system belonged to (surprisingly difficult), a station where you could try your hand at typesetting (though you disappointingly didn’t get to print anything, as you were just lining up letters on a board), and my favourite thing of all: a tablet where you submitted a writing sample, and it analysed your handwriting (I don’t know if it was entirely correct, but still, fun! Apparently I write with an upward slant and have well-defined dots and crosses, which can mean ambitiousness (definitely not) or arrogance (probably, though I think I’m more of a snob than arrogant. Arrogant implies a certain self-confidence that I don’t really possess) and a well-ordered mind (hopefully?)).

Section of a Mozart Symphony, BL.

The other best section, as far as I was concerned, was the one featuring examples of the handwriting of famous people, which contained Robert Falcon Scott’s last diary entry (which I’ve seen before, but still, so sad, and so pointless), one of Mozart’s symphonies as originally composed in his handwriting, Alexander Fleming’s early notes on penicillin, and if I recall correctly, I think either the manuscript for Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein, or possibly both (this is the problem with not being able to take pictures. Well, that and trying to blog about something three weeks after the fact because I went to a lot of exhibitions in a short period of time and didn’t get around to this until now).

Caxton Canterbury Tales

As usual, the exhibition was illustrated throughout with lots of beautiful old texts, except for the final section, which was really pretty lame, as all it seemed to consist of was a screen where you could vote on how you thought people would communicate in 2050, and a scroll of paper where you could write how you felt about the future of handwriting (surprisingly few obscene messages, but given that most of the BL’s visitors appear to be pensioners, I guess it would have been much more surprising to find a penis doodled there or something). There were a handful of non-book related artefacts, such as a tattooing kit and some pens and pencils showing the evolution of writing implements, though I was disappointed to see there was nothing from the Pen Museum. I think I would have liked more of this sort of thing, particularly tattooing, though I guess it’s up for debate on whether it’s more of an art form or a form of communication.

Writing Composite Image, BL.

I suppose the object of the exhibition was to explore how writing evolved across cultures, and what might happen to writing in the digital age, and it did do that to some extent, though more as an overview than as a comprehensive exhibition. They didn’t use the entire exhibition space and what was here was far more spread out than usual, which I suppose is fine when you’re appreciating a beautiful object (or blocking a case, as at least then you’re only blocking one), but something about it just felt a little half-assed. This is definitely not one of their “blockbuster exhibitions,” maybe more just something to fill the space during the summer, when they presumably get fewer visitors than normal (because I’m assuming people don’t want to spend their summer hanging out in an archive? I would (well, in one with fewer rules than the BL), but I’m not normal). I liked it fine, but nothing in here was particularly memorable, as you can probably tell from the way I’m struggling to fill up this post, and if I’d paid full price, I think I’d be fairly annoyed at the lack of content, especially compared to the BL’s normal exhibitions. 2.5/5 for this one.

5 comments

  1. Yes- my vote for one of the most boring titles ever! Sounds like they could have made a really interesting exhibit, given how much cool stuff they have in their collection. More on analyzing hand writing of famous people would have been cool. I always find the contradiction between Poe’s dark stories and his amazingly beautiful handwriting interesting. I’m sure they could come up with lots if interesting analyses. Congrats on having a well ordered mind.

    1. Well, apparently (as I just found out from Anabel) it is a UK-wide thing, which makes the terrible name even more appalling. I’m sure I must have seen Poe’s handwriting at some point, but I can’t recall exactly what it looks like – I’m sure it was lovely though, almost everyone’s was back then. Don’t know how well-ordered my mind actually is, but I guess I am fairly organised…

  2. Ah, you’ve illuminated something! The Mitchell Library in Glasgow has a small exhibition with this title (I haven’t been but I keep seeing it advertised on Facebook). When I read your post I assumed it must be connected so I looked it up and it’s a nationwide thing:
    https://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/event/1/writing-making-your-mark
    I used to be in the Mitchell all the time when the Women’s Library was based next door but now I have to have a very specific reason to trek to that part of town. Suspect this exhibition might not be it!

    1. How interesting! Thanks for pointing that out; I never would have guessed, and there was certainly nothing about it inside the exhibition. That does make it even sadder that they couldn’t come up with a more engaging name though!

  3. It sounds as though someone missed an opportunity. The future of writing is an important issue; what will future historians rely on in the absence of letters, diaries etc? Will we retain digital records – emails, texts, Facebook bitsandbobs – and how reliable will they be anyway? Who was it that thought writing was magic? – the idea that you could put something on a piece of paper, give it to a messenger, and someone hundreds of miles away would know your thoughts…

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