Ash Smyth

‘Magna Carta Unification Event’ at the British Library: a magna balls-up

'Magna Carta Unification Event' at the British Library: a magna balls-up
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Early last month I tripped on up to the British Library for the 'Magna Carta Unification Event'. Manuscripts had been choppered in from Salisbury, Lincoln, and indeed (x2) from the British Library’s own collection. It was my chance to catch 'all four surviving original 1215 Magna Carta Manuscripts in one place for the first time’.

Now, I don’t have any strongly-held views on how you pull out all the stops when it comes to exhibiting a handful of 800-year-old documents. But given the much-vaunted constitutional impact of King John’s power-wrangling at Runnymede, the Magna Carta’s reputation as ‘one of the most famous documents in history’, and the habitual cross-referencing to other momentous world events such as the Civil War (English), the Declaration of Independence, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – well, I was expecting a bit of a show.

The reality was less than overwhelming.

Access to the library’s Conference Centre was controlled by a score or more of attendants dressed in era-appropriate garb, calling everyone ‘milord’ and ‘nuncle’. Several of them carried weapons. Once inside – safely ensconced near the back – we were prayed to silence by an extra from Maid Marian who then besought us to please turn off our mobile phones, but without any of the relevant vocabulary.

There followed an awkward introduction from a representative of the British Library Outreach and Media team (or whatever), who positively implored us to ‘hashtag’ our way through this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and made a big deal of asking some front-row preppy squit why we shouldn’t say the ‘the’ before ‘the Magna Carta’. And then we were handed over to historian Dan Jones, who provided perhaps 15 minutes of context for the existence of the Magna Carta in the first place – King John was ‘a bad king’, etc. – but predominantly seemed intent on making ‘accessible’ pop-culture references about Jay Z ( Shawn Carter – geddit?).

The academia apparently over with, we once again ran the gauntlet of cosplaying Pythons – who were now singing 'Tis the Month of Fa La La Roundelay' – the better to be first to the Treasures Gallery for the moment we had all been waiting for.

The room was unlit, mostly cordoned off, and surrounded by false walls behind which workmen were still working on the main part of the exhibition. Curatorial staff invited us to ‘keep’ moving. With a hundred-odd people fore and aft in the shuffling queue, the average ticket-holder spent maybe two whole minutes in the presence of all four assembled Magnae Cartae.

Which is about all you needed, to be quite honest. Chancery Script is no Times New Roman, and there’s only so much smudgy mediaeval Latin you can stare at before you start to look ridiculous. And at least one of them’s illegible, anyway.

Our two minutes up, we grabbed our Magna Carta stash-bags (pens and pencils, a notebook, a chocolate coin, and a postcard of Salisbury Cathedral) – and then it was a third time around with the Games Workshop enthusiasts if you wanted your commemorative chit signed.

'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned...' and so on.

With seemingly unintentional irony, the Nigels in charge of the slow lanes leapt at the chance to hold forth, uninvited, on the composition, use and general history of sealing wax (inter alia) to the captive punters. My mate, muttering: ‘They didn’t make King John knead his own bloody Babybel...’

It’s a contrarian approach to publicity, to be sure; but – for all the wrong reasons – I find I’m very much looking forward to going back, complimentary ticket in hand, and seeing the fully tooled-up exhibition in all its glory. This, it should be noted, will include no more than two of the original featured documents, the others having buggered off back to Lincoln and to Salisbury, the better to star in their own celebrations of the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (and a series of accompanying events) is on at the British Library until 1 September