Exhibition review: Magna Carta – Law, Liberty, Legacy

The British Library’s major new show marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. After a morning spent among scrolls and artifacts – including King John’s back molars – Jacqueline Tenreiro gives her verdict  


By Jacqueline Tenreiro

30 Mar 2015

For history buffs and the constitutionally curious, or those simply wanting to refresh those dim memories from primary school, the British Library’s new exhibition on Magna Carta showcases the foundation of the world’s most common political system, democracy.

The exhibition, the largest ever on its subject, takes the 800-year-old charter – intended as call for peace, developed into the basis of democracy – and explores its importance across eras and peoples with the help of an impressive collection of artefacts and testimonials.

A baron’s statue welcomes you down a set of stairs that lead into a dimly lit room, artefacts gently illuminated in their cases. Medieval receipts etched in wood, genealogy scrolls, rusted weapons and ages-old manuscripts offer up some historical context and jog your memory about King John and his less-than-successful leadership, the angry barons who revolted against him and the charter-annulling pope who began it all.

The first room acts as a recap of King John’s life, political trials and triumphs included. From the loss of Normandy to the First Baron’s War, the exhibition offers a glimpse into his reign and legacy, supplemented with dozens of paintings and figurines of the monarch, his personal seals and, not least of all, a replica of his tomb. Perhaps one of the most striking – and certainly the strangest – is the set of John’s back molars, which sit in a velvet-lined box next to the royal thumb bone. They’re surprisingly well preserved, though the bone is a bit more gnarled.

The next few rooms don’t disappoint either, with borrowed pieces from several institutions, including the New York Public Library and National Archives. Among the loans are versions of the US Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – their first time in the UK, any guide will proudly tell you – as well as the 1948 UN-adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the English Bill of Rights, drawn up in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Further rooms offer video clips and photos of familiar faces – former US president Bill Clinton, the late Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi among them, with explanations of the impact of Magna Carter on their respective lives, and the dogma with which they governed. It’s a moving glimpse into the breadth and degree of the charter’s influence, relevant even hundreds of years after its creation, and in places it was never intended to impact.

The exhibition concludes, quite appropriately, with a 1215 version of the Magna Carta itself – faded, hard to read and smaller than you might expect. Yet, because the previous rooms have built so much anticipation, the display makes you pause in such a way that only being in the presence of something truly great can do. 

Overall, the exhibition’s chronology-meets-random-artefacts style comes together in an entertaining, eclectic way, and will leave visitors with a renewed appreciation for the power of doctrine – one that goes far beyond what you might remember learning in school.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is at the British Library until 1 September 2015

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