The British Library often makes good exhibitions and the current show Taking Liberties is excellent – if you have any interest in life, other humans or have any curiosity about anything then you owe it to yourself to go (if you canâ€™t make it to London, check it out online). It closes this Sunday (March 1 2009). At a time when there is so much talk about the hopes and fears for our future socially, economically and environmentally â€“ the material presented in Taking Liberties maps out how ethical ideas, such as freedom of speech, equal votes and human rights, are continually fought for and the exhibition produces a thrilling sense of the vitality and courage of human agency through the ages.
The accompanying events series has included a discussion asking â€œCan we tackle climate change without dictatorship?â€, which is available online. (It is illustrated by Nasaâ€™s image of the earth that Stewart Brand petitioned for public access to back in 1966). But some things canâ€™t be experienced online. Between the BL displays, which include items from Magna Carta to Thomas Paineâ€™s Rights of Man to works of Mary Wollstonecraft and The Good Friday Agreement, are oversized interactive posts that bleep too loudly for no apparent reason, but are fun nonetheless.
I canâ€™t remember the â€œcitizen numberâ€ on my wrist-band but at the end of my visit my opinions were plotted against other visitors and I was firmly one of the crowd (I was quietly disappointed). Well versed in the problems of survey bias, I concluded that this implied that my political understanding sits within a fairly narrow demographic of visitors to BL, who do not find multiple choice quizzes demeaning, who like interactive displays and are not self-conscious about being noisy in exhibition spaces (aka bleeping students).
But people do miss out when they donâ€™t go in for such gizmos. Exhibitions are sites for self-education, so good interactive displays are fun because they draw you into playing with ideas and thinking critically in a relaxed way. Thatâ€™s my idea of fun. And I am not alone. My recent visit to Washington DCâ€™s National Air and Space Museum was certainly enhanced by watching the new 3-D film (specs included) of the sunâ€™s magnetic actives. As the Heliophysicists narrating the film explained, understanding the â€˜weatherâ€™ behaviour of the sun is of new importance to the human race as we increasingly rely on satellite technology in our everyday lives â€“ it was fascinating.
Of course, museums are far from neutral in the knowledge they present and exhibitions in every field (whether art, science or history) are created as a way of making convincing arguments through objects in public space, much as a books do through text.
The Air and Space Museum featured in the film War and Peace / Jang Aur Aman (Anand Patwardhan, 2002, 130 mins) screened recently at Tate Britain (13 February). Patwardhanâ€™s documentation of nuclear war threats in South Asia included an interview with the curators of the D.C. museum explaining that their planned display of Enola Gay (the first US plane to drop atomic bombs on Japan) was â€˜reducedâ€™ due to political pressure not to reflect unfavourably on military technologies and the extreme civilian deaths they caused. Such decisions patronise the viewing public as well as compromise the intellectual rigour of the institution. Having oneâ€™s imagination ignited by the space missions in a museum is not adversely affected by acknowledging the horrors of war – the human mind is built for complexity. The dominant tendency to mistake the need for coherence for a oversimplification of ideas, values and actions fundamentally undermines peopleâ€™s wonderful capacity for understanding complex ideas on lots of different levels.
Back within the bio-sphere, itâ€™s worth remembering how truly significant our values and actions are. As Taking Liberties makes clear, our rights and freedoms are made up of small steps for man, and huge leaps for mankind.
Centre image: Laws of Forests, 1225 Copyright Â© The British Library Board