Writing Britain, at the British Library

Nice title, using the English ambiguity between a participle (“Britain which writes”), like “flying saucer”, and the gerund with an object (“writing (about) Britain”), like “singing songs”. (The National Trust went large on this a few years ago with their slogan “Inspiring Places, Inspiring People”.)

But the exhibition itself, imho, is deeply flawed. There’s no coherence, no logic beyond “How can we show lots of our amazing collection? I know – let’s pull out everything to do with a British location. We can group by type of place: suburbs, wilderness etc.”. That’s it really, so, while there are some amazing things to see here (from the Old English Exeter Book to Lennon’s In My Life, there’s no overall meaning, nothing being learnt. The result is a frustrating experience: you start by walking from case to case, trying to read everything, but actually stopping only at the books or manuscripts that you’ve heard of, or which grab you; pretty soon, as you become aware of the size of the exhibition, a sort of despair sets in, as you realise that you’re not going to be able to pay sufficient attention to everything, nor, as I’ve said, make sense of the whole.

What could they have done? Have an expert, a psychogeographer perhaps, use the (fewer) exhibits to teach us how authors relate to place, so, instead of grouping by “kind of place”, group them, say (I’m thinking aloud), by “attitude towards place” – “nostalgia”, “fear”, “calm” etc. Just do something more interesting than type of place.

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