Leonardo da Vinci – Codax Arundel notebook. (Photo Credit: British Library)
Over the years I’ve noticed that visiting large galleries or cultural sites doesn’t always work for me unless they can be done in bite sized chunks. I don’t think that this is because of a short attention span but more that I get a bit punch drunk and desensitised to what’s in front of me. It can be hard for example in an art gallery to grasp the sheer magnitude of what’s in front of you when there can be so much stuff to see. There is often also a real difficulty in being able to stop and take it in as there is a constant stream of people wanting to stand in the same spot.
Smaller, well curated selections then I think is the best way to really take something in and it also gives greater time to reflect on what you have actually seen as you go through the rest of your day doing something else.
Yesterday I was down in London and had an hour or so to kill before meeting up with friends so I wandered the 5 mins or so from Kings Cross to the British Library. Now despite having walked past it countless times it was only very recently that I realised that sections of the library are open to mere mortals like me, I was always under the impression that it was some sort of exclusive club the membership of which would not be open to me.
My first dalliance came just before Christmas when I went to see the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which is still on and is ace by the way) but this second time I wanted to go and see what I’d call ‘The Greatest Hits of the Written Word”. Now I was expecting the gallery to be rammed and not be able to see anything but late on a Monday afternoon when I visited there were maybe 6-8 people looking at the 200 or so exhibits and oh my what exhibits they were. I genuinely felt moved being in this room surrounded by the evidence of the staggering intellectual and historical weight of The Word !
In well curated sections I was able to closely see The Magna Carta (and next to it the papal decree declaring it illegal), The Gutenberg Bible, The Lindisfarne Gospels, Codex Sinaiticus, Diamond Sutra (the world’s earliest dated printed book), Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, classics of British literature – Dickens, Bronte, Hardy, Wilde etc, A letter written by Nelson on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar, Handel’s Messiah, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles and various maps and pictures, a celestial globe and many more astonishing rare pieces of print.
It really is a quite incredible room, that these treasures are freely on display should be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops. Next time you are heading in or out of London from the North, just give yourself a bit more time for your train and pop along. I can’t think of a more astonishing and mind boggling place to spend an hour.
The Gutenberg Bible (Photo Credit: British Library)