Posted by: annmucc | February 5, 2009

Taking Liberties: Exhibition at the British Library

While my sister and mum were touring the conservation centre, I had a tour booked of the Taking Liberties exhibit at the British Library. I had booked for this tour ages ago, and had been disappointed that I wouldn’t be going as Cec and mum would be in London (it was a tour for PhD students, so I couldn’t really smuggle them in :P). However, when I was at the British Library around two weeks ago, I remembered about the conservation centre tour, and decided to book my mum and sister on it. When I went home to jot it down on my calendar, I realised that the two tours were at the same time! so sure…we could all go there and do our separate thing. So off we went today.

The tour for us was divided into two parts…the first part involved us being taken around the main aspects of the exhibit by a guide, who explained the main features, and got us thinking about the different levels of an exhibit…why were certain materials put in the foreground, and others placed in the background…was anything left out completely, and how does this exhibit affect our narrative of British History? Whenever I go to a museum, or to see an exhibit, I generally take everything at face value, and do not really think about the underlying thoughts, ideas and ideologies passing through. It was good to have these things pointed out, and discussed, in the context of research and what this means. 

One of the things which made me think the most was what was our narrative for British History? Where are we approcahing the exhibit from, and why?…This was a question our guide asked us before we started, and got us to share what our narrative was…I said that my narrative is such that I always thought of Britain as the dominating force, with other countries taking their liberty from Britain, coming from a former colony as I do…the 3 others were PhD students in the humanities, and all were British, so they approached the subject from a different point of view. It was good to see how our narrative changed with the exhibit, and what we thought of the exhibit. I must say I found it a bit difficult to follow, since I was in a group with people who clearly knew their British History (one was also a History teacher in the past!), but I had no knowledge to fall back on.

One thing I was a bit taken aback with was however the attitude of the guide…at one point in the tour, we were taken to an exhibit of the the rights to homosexuals. In the discussion that ensued I said that in Malta there is no civil marriages available to homosexuals, and also mentioned that there is no divorce and abortion. At that moment the guide just said: well, that’s because you have a totalitarian government then…I tried to explain that people also do not necessarily agree with the introduction of these issues anyways, and the ideas have only recently started to change, so it is also the wish of the people (I don’t think a political party would necessarily want to go out for divorce, abortion and gay marriages, as they would be scared of losing precious votes [though gaining others; I think the mentality on these issues is however changing now, so we will probably see some changes soon]). Nevertheless, from that point onwards, whenever I said anything about things in Malta, he just dismissed what I said with jibes at the government, and in a way to our traditions and way of life! I was quite negatively surprised. The reason for this? The guide might have been gay, and he took the no civil marriage to gays in Malta a bit too personally…sorry man! I didn’t mean it personally…it is just the way things are…I wasn’t saying it is good, or bad, but just stating a fact!

After this first part, the second part involved a meeting with a curator, who was responsible for certain parts of the exhibit. It was HIGHLY interesting for me to listen to this guy go through some of the discussions that they went through regaarding what to put in and what to leave out, as well as discussions as to how his original ideas evolved. He also explained how certain things had to be adapted to make sure that everyone could udnerstand the exhibit, but at the same time it won’t be talking down to those people who are a bit more knowledgeable about the subject. I really enjoyed listening to him recount some of the struggles that went on behind the scenes to get the exhibit to where it was, and to mesh everyones ideas to get a final product, with everyone having to compromise on certain areas. It was also highly intersting to listen to him mention the aspect of merging the academic interest and upholding of that, with the reaching to the general public. If not for anything else, the whole experience was certainly worth it for that! I hope that some of what he spoke about will filter through to me when I need to do anything similar. It was very enlightening!



  1. how interesting

  2. About the totalitarian government bit… i guess compared to cities like london some people would see Malta as a bit backwards with certain issues. Especially since it is a highly catholic country while here everyone takes every precaution to be secular and open. Don’t forget that certain things which are illegal (and taboo) in Malta have been accepted and legalised and become a way of life in other countries for decades!

  3. @ Mina: It was 🙂

    @ Ruthie: I understand that, and of course agree with you! But I didn’t expect him to turn as hostile as he did – I mean we were taking about struggles, so he should know how difficult it is to change things 😛

  4. Hi Ann — I’m the BL curator who gave the talk last week. Thanks for your kind words — I’m glad you found it interesting.

  5. @ Arnold: Glad you found your way to my blog and to my comments on the discussion. I really appreciated it and found it extremely interesting. Learning how to communicate issues with public is something which I will surely need in my studies, so hearing about the issues you dealt with was great!

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