The evolution of writing from hieroglyphs to emojis:
Writing: Making Your Mark opens at the British Library
Writing: Making Your Mark is a landmark British Library exhibition spanning 5,000 years worldwide, exploring one of humankind’s greatest achievements – the act of writing.
From carved stone inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and early printed works to beautiful calligraphy, iconic fonts and emojis, Writing: Making Your Mark deconstructs the act of writing and considers its future in the digital age.
The exhibition is organised under five main themes – the Origins of Writing, Writing Systems and Styles, Materials and Technology, People and Writing and The Future of Writing. Beginning with the origins of writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and the Americas, the exhibition charts the evolution of writing through technology and innovation and explores more than 40 different writing systems, from the 5,000 year old Jemdet Nasr clay tablet with very early cuneiform to digital typefaces and emojis.
The exhibition is laid out in a form to suggest a scroll meandering around the room, an imaginative approach, and helpful for guiding visitors round the space. There is so much to see.
It has plenty of items that bring us right to the heart of everyday life. Amongst many others is an ancient wax tablet with a schoolchild’s homework from 100-199AD, Florence Nightingale’s diary and research notebook, and a stunning 2.44 metre-long papyrus scroll recording the sale of property in Italy from 572 AD, the longest intact papyrus in the British Library and possibly one of the largest to survive from Ancient and Medieval Europe. At the other end of the timescale, there is a printing press, typewriters – one with Chinese characters – and a good old Apple II computer (for some of us, seeing this is like meeting up with a much-loved old friend that you realise you haven’t seen around for some time).
For calligraphers, it is especially lovely to see one of Donald Jackson’s sparkling charters, this one incorporating the Crafts Council in 1971, juxtaposed in a cabinet with the Ramsey Psalter and Edward Johnston’s instructions on how to write in Foundational script with a broad-edge metal nib.
With many items going on display for the first time, other exhibition highlights include:
- 3,600 year old Ancient Egyptian limestone monument covered in hieroglyphs, which contains a hymn to the god of the netherworld, Osiris, and recently discovered to be the oldest item in the British Library
- The world’s earliest complete dated printed book, the woodblock-printed Diamond Sutra from Dunhuang, China, 11 May 868 AD
- One of the earliest surviving examples of the first stages of the alphabet we use today, carved into the base of the Serabit Sphinx from Sinai, 1800 BC on loan from the British Museum
- A 2.19 metre high limestone monument covered in Maya hieroglyphs from Belize (Central America), 647 AD going on display for the first time, on loan from the British Museum
- William Caxton’s first printing of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales from 1476-77, which is the earliest substantial book printed in Britain
- Papal indulgence, possibly the earliest piece of printing with movable type in Europe, printed by Johannes Gutenberg
- Poet Alfred Tennyson’s quill, discarded after the nib became bent, on loan from the Museum of Writing
The exhibition will simultaneously launch in over 20 partner libraries around the UK, through the Living Knowledge Network. From Belfast and Norwich to Exeter and Edinburgh, the family-focused pop-up displays will encourage libraries to respond to the themes of the exhibition with material from their own archives as well as through local events programmes, enabling visitors to engage in a nationwide conversation on the origins, means and future of writing.
There will also be a series of events inspired by the exhibition featuring leading experts exploring everything from hieroglyphics and alphabets to typography and tattoos. A Late at the Library ‘lettering party’ soundtracked by DJs will feature famous names from the early 1980s New York subway graffiti scene, Martha Cooper and Lady Pink, and the Library will be marking World Emoji Day on 17 July. There will also be free school workshops, a range of inspiring adult courses including masterclasses on Japanese calligraphy and Ancient Greek, audio-description tours for visitors who are blind or partially-sighted and the Library’s first autism-friendly private view of the exhibition.
Writing: Making Your Mark is accompanied by a Family Trail brochure, web space exploring the history of writing and a richly-illustrated book celebrating the act of writing from across the globe, available in hardback and paperback from the British Library shop and all good bookstores.
The exhibition runs from 26 April – 27 August 2019 and further details and the online booking facility can be found here.
We will have a full review of the exhibition in the next Newsletter. Meanwhile, we encourage you to go and see this absorbing exhibition.