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Discover the man behind the maps at James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library

© Sam Lane Photography © British Library

James Cook’s account of his first landing in Australia is on display at the British Library exhibition
© Sam Lane Photography © British Library

This August will mark 250 years since Captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour set sail from Plymouth. It was the first of three important voyages that changed the world. Although the figure of Cook can be somewhat controversial at times, there’s no arguing that he and his crew were responsible for some amazing exploration of the planet in challenging conditions.

To mark the anniversary, the British Library have curated a special exhibition following the story of Cook’s three voyages from 1768 to his death in Hawaii in 1779. This fascinating collection features many of the original maps, logbooks, sketches, and artefacts collected during the three expeditions. While many of Cook’s predecessors sought solely to claim new lands for their empires, his voyages were more intellectually minded as well with a goal to study the life and culture of the lands they visited. Joining him on the various vessels used over the decade were artists, botanists and astronomers.

The exhibition is split into sections covering how the world was before Cook and how he changed the world’s map. It was amazing to see a copy of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s journal of his discovery of Tasmania and New Zealand. Following a brief introduction to world maps at that time, the exhibition begins chronically with Cook’s first voyage (1768-1771), taking in Tahiti, several Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia’s east coast. During this trip, the botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and his team collected thousands of animal and plant specimens. The exhibition features a sea urchin and squid captured and preserved by Banks from the Pacific Ocean. There are also drawings of the various native people they came into contact with upon arrival in each country or island, such as the Tahitians and Maoris, and their culture. What is particularly amazing about this collection were the various maps of New Zealand drawn by Cook himself. Tasman before him only saw a small section of NZ, whereas Cook’s voyage managed to circumnavigate both the north and south island. If you consider he didn’t have satellite or drones like we would have today, to map an entire country’s coastline as near-accurate as he is did in the 18th century is pretty impressive. It was also on this voyage, Cook’s men caught their first sight of the Kangaroo, which is featured in a sketch by Sydney Parkinson, the first European drawing of the marsupial.

© Sam Lane Photography © British Library

William Hodges’ sketch of War Canoes in Tahiti (1774-75)
© Sam Lane Photography © British Library

The remainder of the exhibition continues in the same vein, with areas dedicated to the second voyage (1772-1775), which he crossed the Antarctic Circle and proved the so-called huge land mass named ‘Terra Australia’ was actually a myth. The third and Cook’s final voyage (1776-1779) resulted in the Captain’s death in Hawaii after clashing with the Hawaiians. Admittedly, Cook and his men made some mistakes along the way, although some of those you could blame the European colonialist attitude of the time. The pros and cons of Cook’s voyages, in terms of colonization and mapping is addressed by experts from both sides in a series of videos. In our world right now, we are so used to globalisation, it’s hard to imagine when the other side of the world was completely unknown and so dramatically different to our own way of life. Looking through Cook and his colleagues’ logbooks and diaries and seeing the images of the ships, you really get a sense of how treacherous and challenging these voyages were. It’s no wonder so many men never returned, dying from diseases or following violent clashes with the people they met along the way. Seeing these historic men’s handwriting was amazing and, admittedly, difficult to read at time with their small Georgian scrawls. It was particularly poignant to see Cook’s last ever logbook entry on 6 January 1779 – a week before he was killed in a skirmish over a stolen smaller boat.

Before this exhibition, I didn’t know much of Cook, a man I’d seen in various statues in New Zealand and Australia and had never really thought of him as a three-dimensional character. This fascinating exhibition has really provided a vivid and human picture of this famous figure together with the men who sailed with him and how they changed the world with these epic voyages.

  • James Cook: The Voyages is on from now until 28 August 2018. At the PACCAR Gallery, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB. Nearest station: King’s Cross St Pancras or Euston. Opening hours vary. Tickets: Adults £14, Senior £11, Students: £7 (free for members). For more information and tickets, visit the British Library website.

Metro Girl likes: While you’re in the British Library, head to the free exhibition Treasures of the British Library. You can look at genuine manuscripts, books and letters from some of Britain’s most iconic figures. Among the collection on display includes the original 1215 Magna Carta; Jane Austen’s writing desk and a 1809 letter to her brother Frank; Beatles’ handwritten lyrics; a 1603 letter from Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Christopher Wren’s designs for The Monument. Currently, the Treasures room also features a small exhibition (until 5 August 2018) on Karl Marx and his daughter Eleanor. It includes a first edition of the Communist Manifesto, letters from Eleanor after her father’s death, and a chair from the original British Library Reading Room which Marx is likely to have sat in. After you’ve had a good read, head to the nearby Gilbert Scott bar in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel for a cocktail.

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Competition time! Russian Revolution exhibition at the British Library

© Sam Lane Photography

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is on at the British Library until 29 August
© Sam Lane Photography

This year marks 100 years since Russian overthrew its Tsarist autocracy. Following the forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, Russia embarked on a turbulent period as different political and social groups battled to lead the country. To mark the Communist uprising, the British Library have curated a collection of propaganda and memorabilia from different sides of the battles.

Admittedly I didn’t know too much about the Russian Revolution before visiting this exhibition. I had been fascinated by the story of the ‘missing’ Grand Duchess Anastasia as a child, who has since been confirmed as murdered along with her family in 1918. The Russian Revolutionary period is convoluted and involves many different groups with different agendas and methods. The various parties were not only seeking power, but complete overhaul of society as a whole, so they needed to convert and influence the Russian people to their way of thinking… with propaganda.

© British Library

Red Army poster
© British Library

In a bid to unravel this complicated period, the British Library have set out their exhibition in six stages – The Tsar and his People; Last Days of the Monarchy; Civil War; The Bolsheviks in Power; Threat or Inspiration?; and Writing The Revolution. The exhibition begins in the last days of the Russian Empire, featuring photos of the Imperial family juxtaposed against scenes of millions of Russians living in dire poverty. Peasants were being heavily taxed with little in return so it’s clear to see why there was rising resentment against the ruling classes. An amazing part of this initial section is a first-edition of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which was published in London in 1848. Other impressive pieces are a coronation album of Nicholas II and a 1902 letter from the then-future Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin asking to use the British Museum’s Library under a pseudonym ‘Jacob Richter’, which he was using to evade the Tsarist police. Russia’s brewing social discord wasn’t helped by World War I, with conscription leading to labour shortages. Many Russians were unhappy over Tsarina Alexandra when she was put in control over the Government while her husband acted as Commander-in-chief of the military. Many were suspect about her relationship with the faith healer Rasputin – who is seen in photographs and as a caricature in pamphlets and posters.

The sections of the exhibition centring on the revolution itself features a range of propaganda and memorabilia from the period, including handwritten notes from Leon Trotsky with annotations by Lenin and pieces of Red Army uniforms. I particularly liked the electronic map of the different groups’ movement around Russia – seeing the Red Army swell, then retreat, before eventually achieving national dominance. Finally, the exhibition concludes with how the Revolution was captured in past tense, with the ruling party using propaganda to keep the status quo.

Using a varied collection of objects, posters, film, photos and other memorabilia, the British Library has provided a fascinating insight into the motivations behind the Revolution and breaks down the myths of what it achieved. It’s certainly heavy stuff and requires a clear head, but is a worthwhile visit from Russian history aficionados or novices.

  • Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is on now until 29 August 2017. PACCAR Gallery, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB. Nearest stations: Euston, King’s Cross or St Pancras. Open Mon, Wed-Fri: 9.30am-6pm, Tues 9.30am-8pm, Sat 9,30am-5pm, Sun 11am-5pm. Tickets: £13.50 (free for members). For booking, visit the British Library website.

Competition time!

To win a pair of tickets to Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths at the British Library, like our Facebook page and fill out the form below. Closing date: Monday 24 July 2017. (Competition is now closed!). The winner must live in the UK and be able to visit the exhibition before it ends on 29 August 2017. Only the winner will be contacted after the competition closes.


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Curiouser and curiouser! Visiting the Alice In Wonderland exhibition at the British Library

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Explore the many interpretations of Alice In Wonderland at the British Library

For generations, the tales of Alice In Wonderland have captivated millions of readers (and viewers of film adaptations) around the world. For me, I was first introduced to the story as a young child when I watched the 1951 Disney animated film adaptation and was enthralled by this upside down, magical world. I soon read Lewis Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and the sequel Through The Looking Glass.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

John Tenniel’s original illustrations feature heavily in the exhibition

2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Carroll’s masterpiece, originally written for a girl named Alice Liddell. To commemorate such a timeless and enduring story, the British Library have curated an exhibition of Alice memorabilia, featuring various publications, adaptations and illustrations.

The exhibition takes place in the Entrance Hall at the British Library with a step-by-side mini refresher of Alice’s adventures using different illustrations from across the decades on mirrors and 3D pop-ups of boxes, drinks and houses. Of course, one of the most familiar depictions of Alice is by Sir John Tenniel, who was commissioned by Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) to illustrate his novel.

Once you’ve passed through this, you enter the main exhibition (where you must put away your camera) and follow the history of the story’s conception to more recent re-tellings and illustrations. I was particularly stunned to see Carroll’s handwritten manuscript for the story, which he presented to young Alice Liddell for Christmas. To see his handwriting, the familiar plotline and his own illustrations (which he didn’t think were that great but looked pretty impressive to me) was really special. I was also interested to see a clip of a silent movie adaptation of the story from the early 20th century, which came out nearly 100 years before the last modern film adaptation I saw starring Johnny Depp.

For anyone that has loved the Alice stories as a child or an adult, I thoroughly recommend the exhibition. It was a real trip down memory lane to see those Tenniel illustrations I knew so well as a child. In fact, I think maybe now I should re-read the novel again. Also on site for the duration of the exhibition is an Alice In Wonderland pop-up shop, featuring books, memorabilia and other Alice-inspired gifts.

  • The Alice In Wonderland exhibition is on from now until 17 April 2016. The British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB. Nearest station: Euston, King’s Cross or St Pancras. Opening hours vary. Free entry, but donations welcome. To find out more, visit the British Library website.

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