Holding international collections places important obligations on the British Library. Kristian Jensen explains how the institution works with international partners, particularly countries from where collections originate.
When the British Library was created in 1973, the largest constituent part of the new institution came from the British Museum.
This was made up of a vast collection of books published in the UK and possibly the world’s largest collection of European printed books. It also contained extensive collections of manuscripts from around the world.
These collections document and reflect the history of Britain and its interaction with the rest of the world: imperial, economic and mercantile.
Holding these collections places important obligations upon us. We must be open about the provenance of collections, not least those acquired in ways we now find completely unacceptable – through armed force or under conditions of less direct duress, or acquired by people who made their money through the exploitation of enslaved people.
It is also important to work with international partners, particularly countries from where collections originate, presenting people with a diversity of views and expertise. We do this in many different ways.
Within our wide-ranging Ethiopian collection are 349 manuscripts taken by force in 1868 at the sack of Maqdala by British troops and later acquired by the British Museum. Always available in our reading rooms, these were the focus of the first digitisation project which the British Library funded from its government grant.
We worked closely with the Ethiopian Embassy and representatives of the Ethiopian Church on this project. We mounted an exhibition exploring the artistry of the scribes and illuminators, curated by Eyob Derillo, who works on our Ethiopian collection, and opened by the Ethiopian Ambassador.
This led to a closer relationship with our sister institutions in Ethiopia and reciprocal visits. An extended visit by the Director of the National Library and Archive of Ethiopia was planned for earlier this year but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope that once rescheduled, the visit will lead to closer cooperation.
Another important collection consists of manuscripts found in a cave near Dunhuang in Western China. Bought by Marc Aurel Stein around 1907 and donated to the British Museum, it contains important early Buddhist material. Since 1994 we have worked closely with partners throughout the world who have similar collections from Dunhuang, importantly the National Library of China and the Dunhuang Academy.
The International Dunhuang Project has created a database bringing together locally held images and information about the equally dispersed physical items. This pioneering project has been immensely successful, with significant amounts of the collection now freely available online, with search interfaces in many languages.
A generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation is enabling us to preserve, catalogue and digitise the Chinese language Lotus Sutra manuscripts within the collection.
A very different example is the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), which facilitates the digitisation of archives located around the world in danger of destruction or physical deterioration. EAP is creating new ways of working with unique collections held throughout the world.
With generous funding from Arcadia, EAP has provided grants to more than 400 projects in 90 countries in over 100 languages. Collections from about 30 African countries are represented.
The physical collections are digitised on-site where they are held and remain. At least two digital copies are stored: a primary copy in the country of origin, and a secondary copy at the British Library.
The EAP website provides online access. We refer requests for high resolution images to the original holders of the archive and also seek to ensure the values of the people and communities from which the archives have come are respected and that they are consulted about re-use.
The British Library aims to ensure people can understand and interpret the collections which we hold as a historic creation of Britain and of people outside Britain in the colonial and post-colonial period. We have made progress in making this information available and, importantly, easily findable, but we are very aware that there is still a lot to do.
Kristian Jensen is Head of Collections and Curation, the British Library
About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report
This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.
The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.
Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.