‘Terror and Wonder’ Exhibition at the British Library

Whether you’re an English student, a hard-core Goth, or just a bit of a book nerd, the British Library’s most recent exhibition is a must-see.  Inspired by the 250th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s iconic Castle of Otranto, famously subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’, the exhibition follows the genre through history, spanning from Shakespeare to The Twilight Saga.  I can give you just a flavour of this exciting literary showcase, but if you want the experience for yourself, you better head over to the website and book your tickets! (Just finish reading this article first.)

Brilliantly atmospheric

Stepping over the threshold into the exhibition, the atmosphere immediately shifts from the ordinariness of the library foyer to that of a gloomy Gothic world.  The dim lighting and the creepy sounds coming from other rooms mean that the effect on the senses and emotions cleverly reflects the intention of Gothic literature itself.

 As well as this, the actual layout of the exhibition is fairly labyrinthine and maze-like, which creates a sense of disorientation typical of the genre. Although I love Gothic literature, I’m not a big fan of horror films or anything too scary, so I was little worried that there may be people dressed up as Dracula ready to jump out at me.  Thankfully, the exhibition is done tastefully, with no sensational Halloween-style characters or props.  One thing though, whether or not this is intentional, it’s definitely unnaturally cold in there…

An exciting range of exhibits

Vampire killing kit, harriet clifford, kettle mag, kettlemagIn a bid to appeal not only to academics, but also to the general public, the exhibition is named ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, rather than ‘Gothic Literature’.  This is reflected successfully in the large variety of mediums used to display the artefacts.  While one minute you can be pouring over an original manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein annotated by her husband, the next you can be watching a clip from the BBC’s version of Bleak House.  As part of the tour given by the passionate and knowledgeable curators, they explained that they wanted to show how adaptable the Gothic is as a genre and how it has filtered into popular culture over the years. 

Other exciting exhibits include a Victorian vampire hunting kit, the first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a poster for the Paris Horror Theatre, which was banned by the London Underground (whether this was due to the threatening old ladies, or the tiny bit of cleavage on show, who knows).  This section of the exhibition, which is entitled ‘The Gothic Body’ and has enclosing red walls, appeals to those who are into their horror films, as illustrations by the Chapman brothers borrowed from the Tate are on display, as well as exploration of the modern zombie figure.  The final section to explore before heading back to look at everything again, is a room filled with photographs taken at the recent Whitby Goth Festival, which really brings us right into the present day. 

A must-see expecially for students

Having said that the exhibition is for everyone, I feel that the real winner here is the student.  If you’re studying the Gothic as part of your A-Level or degree course, you’ll feel as though the whole thing has been arranged especially to help you write that perfect essay.  As well as the influences and origins of the entire genre, you can also discover contextual and historical details about specific texts and authors.  For example, you can see a model of Fonthill Abbey, which was the home of William Beckford (author of Vathek), which shows that he lived a very Gothic lifestyle.  Similarly, seeing exhibits such as a picture of Haworth, the Brontë’s bleak and isolated house, really brings the genre to life and enhances your understanding of the texts in a way that internet or library research simply couldn’t.

Now that you’re appetite has been sufficiently whet, I’m sure you’re dying to know when you can have a look for yourself.  The exhibition runs from 3rd October to 20th January. Alongside the exhibition, the British Library is also hosting a variety of other Gothic-related events relating to literature, film and music. However, if you’d rather not spend any money or leave the comfort of your sitting room, the Library has partnered with BBC Two and BBC Four to bring us a season of programmes which celebrate all things Gothic. Personally, I’d suggest that you need to see the Wallace and Gromit Were-Rabbit model with your own eyes to truly appreciate it…

For more info on the exhibition please go to:–the-gothic-imagination


Image 1: Terror and Wonder at the British Library (c) Tony Antoniou

Image 2: The British Library- Vampire Hunting Kit, Victorian ©Royal Armouries (XII.11811)