July 16, 2014

British Library to exhibit Declaration of Independence, all hell to potentially break loose


Image via Wikipedia.

Image via Wikipedia.

In a curatorial decision that risks provoking international incidents involving tea and harbors, the British Library has announced that it will be exhibiting the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in a show called “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” opening in March 2015. This will be the very first time these two documents are loaned to the United Kingdom, and we sincerely hope they take good care of them or else.

For now, all is cordial. The library and the institutions that loaned the documents, the New York Public Library and the U.S. National Archives, have issued statements that sound like everyone has just arrived at the dinner party and no one has had  a drink yet.

Claire Breay, curator of the exhibition:

“We’re absolutely delighted that both the US National Archives and New York Public Library have generously agreed to lend these exceptionally important documents to the British Library. Our exhibition next year will provide a unique opportunity to see them displayed with our two original 1215 Magna Carta documents, from which they drew some of their core principles.”

David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States:

“We are pleased to have this opportunity to bring together one of our two original copies of the Bill of Rights with its British ancestor, Magna Carta, and to share it with the people of the United Kingdom in this remarkable exhibition at the British Library.”

Tony Marx, President of the New York Public Library:

“The bedrock of our modern-day society is rooted in the historic documents of the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights—the result of brave citizens who understood the importance of change and reform. The Library is proud to join together with the British Library and the US National Archives in this extraordinary exhibition, which provides us with the rare opportunity to share the handwritten words of Thomas Jefferson, a great statesman and founding father of the United States.”

But the ice may already be thin. According to a Guardian article by Marc Brown, “[Breary] admitted that the US galleries had taken some persuading to allow such celebrated documents to travel.” Well might we be suspicious: remember the last time we trusted an Englishmen with a national treasure? And that wasn’t the founding text of our self-determination, the codification of our rebellion, the original “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Yeah, sure, the Brits have trusted us with their nice stuff. In fact, a copy of the Magna Carta is on display right now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, through September. But we’re the mature children, finally psychologically able to be benevolent and responsible with eight-hundred-year-old pieces of scraped sheepskin. All I’m saying is, you better send our Declaration back, guys. And if we see any little “notes” or “additions” in the margins, that’s it — we’re keeping Benedict Cumberbatch.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.