by Todd Wisti
Whether a person's penchant is for old books, ancient documents, religious tomes, the classic music of Beethoven, Handel or Mozart, the 60s pop music of the Beatles, antiquated maps, sound recordings from years gone by or a combination of any of the above, one will be taken with the collection of English and world history that is available for sampling at the John Ritblat Gallery inside the British Library.

The John Ritblat Gallery has the subtitle "Treasures of the British Library," and provides a wealth of history with no admittance charge to its visitors. Its namesake, Sir John Ritblat (the Chairman and Chief Executive of the British Land Company), was a major donor to the library while it was under construction and was kindhearted in providing one million pounds for the purchase and installation of the library's state of the art display cabinets.

Inside the John Ritblat Gallery's display cabinets are over two hundred historical exhibits. Two hundred, at first take, may not seem like a large number, but when you consider the overwhelming variety and historical significance of these items you may find it difficult, as I did, to visit everything you'd like to have a look at and a ponder over while you're inside the gallery.

Strolling through the gallery, you'll come across medieval maps, the earliest known printed book (The Diamond Sutra printed with carved wood blocks in AD 868), the first book printed in Europe (the Gutenburg Bible, from the year 1455), Shakespeare's First Folio from 1623, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland with drawings by the author. Also in the room are foresighted sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, musical scores by the likes of Bach and Mozart, Beethoven's tuning fork and scribbled lyrics of Lennon and McCartney (A Hard Day's Night is particularly agreeable, being written on a sheet of stationary picturing a cartoon train).

The 1601 death warrant for the Earl of Essex is viewable, and is signed with royal spunk and flourish by Queen Elizabeth the First. King John's Magna Carta from 1215 may be considered to be one of the more celebrated of the historical records displayed in the gallery; in this document, a king is, in writing, held responsible to abide by certain articles as law.

Illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from the year 698, are presented in the room. The Lindisfarne Gospels were meticulously crafted by monks in Northumberland and ornamented with wonderfully drawn illustrations reflecting Viking and Celtic influences.

A room off the main gallery houses the exhibit "Turning the Pages," where one is able to pore over a selected collection of books (the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Sforza Hours, the Diamond Sutra and a Leonardo da Vinci notebook) on a computer terminal and virtually turn the books' pages. A highly commended offering, from what I have heard, although I missed that attraction on my visit to the gallery; I had spied the National Sound Archive exhibit, and made a beeline towards that, forgetting about anything else.

A collection of audio from the National Sound Archive is available to listen to: the first recording of a bird (the call of the Indian Shama Bird, taken from a wax cylinder made circa 1889), Florence Nightingale speaking on 30 July 1890, and the Beatles saying hello are presented here along with a host of other offerings. I might, in retrospect, bring along a handkerchief dampened with a slight bit of antiseptic to discreetly wipe down the public headphones before clamping them onto my ears.

I had hoped to linger at this section of the gallery for a while, but a certain aromatic gentleman was wearing the headset next to the one I was employing, and I began feeling uneasy at the possibility of encountering a lurking build-up of who-knows-what inside my headphones. Yes, a quick wipe-down would be in order on my next visit to the National Sound Archives.

The attractiveness of a library, though, is that it is available for all to enjoy. Once you think you're done with your tour of the Ritblat Gallery, you can certainly go back to revisit your favourite exhibits and scrutinize them further, as well as call upon other sections of the British Library.

© 2001 Todd Wisti

Todd Wisti writes about The British Library's John Ritblat Gallery amongst other topics in respect to British travel in his book Full English Breakfast. Buy Todd Wisti's Book here Full English Breakfast: A Ramble Through London, Wales, and Yorkshire: Travel, Adventures, and History

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