Party for freedom at the British Library

Clare Coatman
3 November 2008

Clare Coatman (London, oD): Halloween saw the public launch of the Taking Liberties exhibition (Wednesday's private viewing was blogged by Anthony Barnett). Before the opening of the gallery was an opportunity to see Joan Bakewell in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti - a formidable sight! Conversation spanned 9/11, the treatment of refugees, Winston Churchill, the state of the Home Office and Eleanor Roosevelt, among many others.

Shami kicked proceedings off by dramatically holding her fist aloft and proclaiming, "the British Library has done to me what the British Government did not manage," (referring to the barcoded wrist band provided to all entrants of the exhibition). Shami was engaging and witty, referring to her current post as head of Liberty as penance for her time as a Home Office lawyer, while still covering a plethora of important issues.

The exhibition is really something special: to see those documents in one place for the first time is awe-inspiring. I strongly advise you see it, if you haven't already - and that you see it again if you have. I have been three times, and am still finding new things to be amazed at. There are the obvious pulls (an original Magna Carta, Charles I death warrant, the Bill of Rights) but also a more human side (a vicious doll put through the letterboxes of suffragettes and a leaflet distributed by peace activists detailing the precise location and phone numbers of government bunkers to be used in the event of a nuclear strike). As Shami put it, "we can celebrate being the oldest unbroken democracy in the world, but this exhibition reminds people of the struggle and sacrifice behind this achievement."

The grand three story atrium hosted live music throughout the night from a wide range of musical styles, but all with the common theme of songs of protest, freedom and human dignity. While the acoustics are desperately unsuited, the space itself is wonderful for live performance.

There was a great atmosphere, and it really felt like a genuine celebration of our freedom. We're looking forward to discussing the issues raised by the exhibition in the forthcoming Convention on Modern Liberty.

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