by Natalie Bennett

There’s much pressure these days on museums and galleries to be “relevant”, to be “interactive”, to be “accessible”. All too often this results in embarrassingly clunky efforts by curators to get down with “the kids”, to squeeze ancient objects into modern debates, to take multimedia places it should be decent left out of.

Taking Liberties – the Struggle for Britain’s Rights and Freedoms, the exhibition that has just opened at the British Library, is very much a reaction to these demands – but it suffers from none of the typical faults. When you look at an early version of the Magna Carta, with the debate over 42 days detention echoing in your ears from a nearby screen, then this is a genuine, unmistakable case of history being relevant to today.

The continual rediscovery and reinvention of the Magna Carta at the heart of English law is perhaps the most powerful single story here. The exhibition pays rightful honour to Sir Edward Coke in rediscovering and redeploying the Magna Carta in the 17th century, and notes that William Blackstone, whose Commentaries dominated teaching of English law, celebrated it as the as the fount of modern liberties and the rule of law. But I was most pleased to learn that a woman had a role in this. Possibly the first printing of the Magna Carta in English was by “Elisabeth, widow of Robert Redman” in 1541.

Again we’re back to modern day parallels though, with the history of the Haebus Corpus Act of 1679. Learning that it was passed after judges, jailers and politicians manipulated old rules by moving prisoners between jails or transferring them to Scotland, one immediately thinks of George Bush, Guantanamo and the whole “they’re enemy combatants” sleight of tongue.

The great power and importance of what might seem to be dry constitutional questions is brought home by perhaps the next most famous document on display here, the death warrant of Charles I. It carries seals and signatures of 59 of the 67 members of court crammed very neatly into its small (less than A3) size. The placing of seals remarkably neat given the emotions that must have been surging. The public hopes and emotion released once the oppressive force of the monarchy was removed is shown nearby, with the “root and branch petition” of 1640, which called for church reform. It was signed by 15,000 londoners, stretching some 10ft in length, with some eight names on each line. (At a quick scan apparently all male.)

One of the next main focuses is voting, beginning with the reminder that at the last general election 38% of those eligible didn’t vote. As a reminder of how hard it was to secure this right, you’d almost like to push through their door a postcard of the doll on display here that was posted anonymously through letterbox of campaigner in west Wales. The virulence of the opposition to the fight for women’s vote screams out from its humble form, pierced through with large dress and hat pins. Nearby is a letter from Annie Kenney, a former factory worker, to Tory leader AJ Balfour. Her spelling might have been uncertain but not her courage.

This isn’t an exhibition, however, that takes a narrow view of rights. In an entire section looking at welfare provision, the curators write: “the view that the state has a duty to look after its citizens only became firmly established in living memory”. It left me pondering how a a citizen’s income is so clearly the logical outcome of that recognition.

But then it was back to history, and the importance of the “end of deference” in the Sixties. Several artefacts are displayed from the “Spies for Peace” case, which was new to me, and a powerful reminder that sometimes brave direct action has profound consequences. It focused on the particular incident in February 1963 when eight peace activists led by the anarchist Nicholas Walter broke into government offices and found information on plans for military government in the event of nuclear war.
Shift in public attitudes

What’s innovative, and highly attractive, about this exhibition is that in each section there are interactive terminals at which visitors can vote on related questions of the day, from the protection of privacy from media intrusion, to whther 16-year-olds should vote, from 42 days detention to the treatment of prisoners. At the end all of these votes are gathered together and displayed on a continually shifting screen that ranks views on a two-way axes – freedom versus control, caution versus reform.

On a Sunday afternoon views were clearly clustered in the corners – splitting probably very broadly “conservatives” and “liberals”. Yet who were these visitors? There were at least two large French family groups, and altogether a disappointing small number of visitors in total. You’d hope that on a school day this place is thronged with eager students, pressing hard on the “vote at 16” button. In fact, since I live just up the road, I’m going to check if that is the case, if without any great confidence.

For the exhibition finishes with a final quote, from Thomas Paine: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must … undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” That’s not entirely reassuring when you’ve read earlier of the result of a June 2008 poll in which 65 per cent of the public backed the government over 42 days detention.

The exhibition continues until March 1, 2009. There’s also an interactive online element where you can offer your views on liberty and compare them to those of others.

Other views: Tristram Hunt and Henry Porter at the Guardian, the Telegraph’s, the Times.