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In this 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, I have just been to a couple more of the the associated exhibitions, with the same friend each time (see previous post for review of Lincoln’s new display). I managed to catch the fantastic exhibition Magna Carta Through the Ages at the Society of Antiquaries of London before it closed on 31 July. This was a small but tightly focused and well-curated exhibition of three key Magna Carta documents: a copy based on a discarded draft sent to Peterborough Abbey in 1215, reproduced in a 13th century cartulary known as the Black Book of Peterborough; the beautifully written Halesowen Abbey Scroll which is a contemporary copy of the 1225 reissue of Magna Carta; and the 14th-century Hart Book of Statutes which likewise preserves a copy of the 1225 Magna Carta and demonstrates that the charter was now a key piece of legislation.

The theme of this exhibition was therefore the transmission of the document through reissues and later copies, and its continuing transmission in later centuries through the hands of the antiquaries who studied and published these documents, and thus helped to bring Magna Carta to wider attention. This excellent little free exhibition was accompanied by a well-written free guide and a subtitled introductory video – a lot of thought had clearly gone into the video. The subtitles are in an unusual upper-case white font on a black background: the background separates caption from image, while the font itself is visually distinct from the medieval lettering, mainly lower-case and densely written, displayed above. Have a look and see for yourself here: and the documents are also made accessible by a transcript, so the reader can compare the transcript and the original side by side (link on the same page). Three cheers for the Soc Ants!

Yesterday we went to the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition at the British Library, which remains on until 1 September 2015. At £5 for disabled person + carer free, entry was excellent value. The focus of this exhibition is to show the Magna Carta in the context of its time and to illustrate how it has been used in, and what it has meant to, later ages. This made for a slightly diffuse exhibition – a narrative thread of 8 centuries is hard to maintain – but I felt the first part of the exhibition relating to its 13th century context was the best, perhaps. I may be biased – I’m an ancient manuscript kind of girl at heart . . . The build-up to Magna Carta was clear – the contemporary documents relating to taxation and the role of the Jews as moneylenders, illustrating some of the issues that were to become flashpoints; the Articles of the Barons, a preliminary demand that preceded Magna Carta itself; the drafts; the covering writ; other contemporary charters from other countries; copies of the reissues of 1216, 1217, and 1225, and of its eventual incorporation onto the statute book.

The most striking object was a contemporary seal press – an enormous oak block about three feet high to press the wax into the matrix and provide a legible image that authenticated a document.

The second half of the exhibition concerned how it had been used as a cornerstone of the evolution of national liberties in the UK, US and elsewhere, forming its enduring legacy which continues to be enshrined in national and international legislation today. Throughout the exhibition, audio-visual content gave subtitled access to various experts elucidating its history, meaning and legacy, from Shakespeare and the English Civil War through to the Declaration of Independence, the abolition of slavery, the Chartist movement and other independence movements, then and now. These were excellent, but content loaned to the exhibition did not have subtitles or a transcript, although these would have been easy to ‘retrofit’ onto these displays – a transcript is, of course, the cheapest option, but the subtitling technology today is widely available as freeware so it shouldn’t be this hard, surely! This is a common exhibition failing and demonstrates that full impact assessments have not been carried out: this niggle let down what was otherwise a generally accessible and interesting exhibition. Two and a half cheers for the BL for mounting a seminal exhibition at an accessible price, half a cheer deducted for the missing details.

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