Library of exile, the acclaimed installation by British artist and author Edmund de Waal featuring 2,000 books by exiled writers from Ovid to the present day is presented at the British Museum from 12 March – 8 September 2020.
The temporary pavilion is designed as a place of dialogue and contemplation, with visitors encouraged to sit and read the books almost all of which are in translation, exploring the idea of language as migration. The library will be free to visit, continuing the British Museum’s historic connection to libraries over the past 260 years.
The library includes the works of almost 1,500 writers from 58 countries in dozens of languages. And it is still growing. The writers represented in the collection range from Tacitus, Voltaire and Dante to the Jewish-Austrian writer Joseph Roth, the German children’s writer Judith Kerr and the Chinese poet Ai Quing to Elvira Dones from Albania, Hannah Al-Shaykh from Lebanon, Samar Yazbek from Syria to Elizabeth de Waal, Edmund’s grandmother.
The walls of the library are made from liquid porcelain and inscribed with the names of the lost libraries of the world, from the ancient Library of Alexandria to the Mosul University Library in Iraq. The books all contain an ‘ex libris’ label for visitors to write their name in a book that matters to them. The collection can also be explored through an online catalogue where new titles can be suggested.
The library was first shown at the 16th century Ateneo Veneto in Venice during the Venice Biennale 2019. Following its presentation at the British Museum, the library’s collection of books will be donated to the world-renowned library of the University of Mosul in Iraq upon which restoration work has begun following its near-total destruction by the group calling itself the Islamic State in 2015.
The library of exile collection, which the UK’s leading international book donation and library development charity Book Aid International will be transporting to Mosul, will create an iconic and inspirational focus in the newly re-established library – an appropriate final home for a collection themed around the effects of loss, displacement and destruction.
The library is accompanied by psalm I-IV, a quartet of new vitrine works by de Waal. Their arrangement reflects the composition of Daniel Bomberg’s 1519-23 edition of the Talmud, a central text of Judaism, printed in Venice during the Renaissance: notable for holding the Hebrew, Aramaic translation and commentary within a single page.
The library of exile is installed in Room 2 at the British Museum, a room which celebrates some of the collectors who have shaped the Museum over four centuries. It is also the room which once housed priceless manuscripts such as Magna Carta, a Qur’an of 1304 and a fifteenth century Haggadah for Passover, as well as works from King George III’s library which was given to the public in 1823. These are now part of the collection of the British Library, which was formally separated from the British Museum in 1997. In housing de Waal’s library within this room, the work speaks to objects in the Museum’s collection from the world’s historic libraries. These include cuneiform tablets from the library of the ancient Assyrian king Ashurbanipal at Nineveh in Iraq, Buddhist paintings on silk from Dunhuang in China, and seals from the Buddhist monastery of Nalanda in India.
Edmund de Waal’s library of exile at the British Museum is accompanied by an extensive events programme which will examine the themes of memory, migration and literature, and will include four panel discussions in collaboration with English PEN. The programme and the display have been supported by AKO Foundation. This project continues the British Museum’s long-standing engagement with contemporary art, examples of which include artists Idris Khan and Ahmad Angawi creating site-specific works for the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World in 2018, and the ground-breaking major exhibition Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman in 2011. In 2019, the Museum acquired 73 portrait drawings by Damien Hirst, and five artworks by the British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.