The ‘Library of Exile’ contains over 2000 books from displaced authors. As a descendent of an immigrant, the separation of people from their culture and language through exile is often a part of Edmund De Waal’s work. His pop-up library is intended as a place of education, conversation, and reflection. Currently at the British museum, it is an idea the artist and writer has had for decades. The outside of the library is coated with porcelain and inscribed with the names of destroyed libraries. Spanning over many centuries, the names include libraries in cities such as Nineveh in sixth-century BC Assyria. Inside, his vitrines containing porcelain, marble and steel pieces hang among the books. Contrary to the typical rules of a library, the work has an interactive element, as visitors are encouraged to sign their names into books that matter to them.This means the piece is constantly developing and shapeshifting. Moreover, people are not only affecting the work but they are affected by it. By looking through the books, they are accessing new knowledge. Therefore, the library reaches out beyond the museum into the viewer’s lives through transforming their way of thinking.

         800 of the books are from De Waal’s own collection. His great grandfather’s library in Vienna was looted by the Nazis, and this Jewish heritage inspires a lot of his work. The playwright Heinrich Heine famously wrote, “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.” The atrocities Jewish and minority communities suffered at the hands of the Nazis are unimaginable, and burning books was a part of the process of dehumanisation. By curating his own library, De Waal is reclaiming what his great grandfather lost and highlighting the importance of accessible and balanced education.  

De Waal highlights this connection between power and fear of knowledge. Literature connects people; having access to books can show experiences outside of your own and challenge preconceived conceptions. De Waal’s example of the Nazis burning books that contained different views to Nazism is one example of how limiting education is often used to promote bigotry and oppression. This is not to say that educated people aren’t capable of prejudice. However, if you take away access to a broad range of thinkers it correlates to a higher risk of hatred and oppression within that society. It is difficult to justify the act of book burning, because even if we culturally disagree with the material, to erase history and pretend as if it never existed is unhelpful. To remember is an activity, not just a thought; it means finding the most accurate narrative of history. The importance of this when it comes to great tragedies like the Holocaust cannot be undermined.

De Waal wants to provide this free education. He wants the visitors of the library to remember both global connection and exile. There are books in 90 different languages for which De Waal has set up an online system for requesting. This work of art is no longer his, but belongs to those who experience it. Every person who has talked to someone, written their name, donated a book or requested a language has affected the library and is therefore in some way responsible for it. During the exhibition’s run, discussions regarding displacement are being held at the museum, exploring subjects such as the possibility of future exile and forced migration due to climate change. De Waal hopes that by providing this platform of teaching, the stigma that immigrants face will be challenged. It is ironic and inexcusable that we actively appreciate worldly literature and artefacts in museums that depend on the very culture that the British media demonises. Respect for refugees is lacking in the toxic language and harmful policing that is normalised in British society.

         Knowledge is not just limited to words. De Waal thought it only fitting that his library be displayed among thousands of artefacts in the British Museum. His own artefacts are hung within the library:

“Alongside the books hangs a quartet of de Waal’s own vitrines, psalm, I-IV (2019), holding pieces of porcelain, marble and steel.”

While his library has an objective and effable function as a source of education, what makes it a work of art is the collaboration between academia and aesthetic. His fascination with literature is communicated through his abstract sculptural work. Some of his writing in the porcelain-coated walls is illegible, contrasted against the absolute legibility of the library. This part of the library has a less direct and obvious function. It acts as a commentary on the history of erasure and imperfect knowledge, offering a different sensory experience to the act of reading a book.

         Language and exile are interwoven. When a refugee or immigrant departs from their homeland, they leave behind all that they know, including being surrounded by their mother tongue. De Waal’s library has books in specific regional languages. He wants his library to be diverse, both to educate visitors and provide free access to books that are rare in the UK. Furthermore, there is a poignant quality about books that we are unable to read or have near impossible translations, and a sense of loss. Every part of De Waal’s library is art. Contemporary art does not have strict rules. You only have to look at Duchamp’s readymade sculptures to see that. There are so many delicate details in this work; interactive writing in books, porcelain inscriptions, and sculptural pieces. It might not be a typical painting or sculpture, but it is art because De Waal intended it to be. It is the effect it has on people and the community it brings together that sets the work apart. Once the British Museum show is over, De Waal is taking his library down and donating the books to the library at the University of Mosul in Iraq, which was destroyed by ISIS. His work will forever impact the communities of those who read and who have read those books, acquiring knowledge that might have otherwise not been available to them.

Antonia Jameson

Alongside her degree, Antonia (she/ her) is a freelance artist. She enjoys drumming, bonding with other northerners, and visiting galleries.