Edmund de Waal’s library of exile opens at the British Museum today.
De Waal, a ceramicist and author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, has created a library filled with books written by authors from over 80 countries, all of whom were exiled.
Over 2,000 volumes are included in the exhibition, all of which have a bookplate that reads ex libris in them.
The inclusion of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by Judith Kerr, has been particularly striking. Visitors are encouraged to write names and dedications in books that have a particular impact upon them and De Waal said the Kerr in the exhibition “has thousands of names inside – it’s a book that goes very profoundly into people’s childhoods.”
On the subject of refugees, de Waal believes that Brits are “hugely sympathetic” overall.
He continues: “I think there’s a toxic, keep-them-out thing going on, which just doesn’t reflect the kind of decency of welcome that people do actually feel.”
De Waal’s great grandfather fled Vienna in 1938, leaving behind his home, and his library of thousands of books. At the end of the war, 191 books were returned to the family.
The family are currently negotiating the return of a Franz Adam which is currently in the Museum of Military History and family portraits which hang in the Belvedere Gallery.
On the restitution of other pieces, however, his stance differs: “things move in the world in complicated ways. And if we emptied the British Museum, we’d be emptying it of all the Chinese porcelain, Japanese jades and Persian treasures that are part of this whole beautiful, generative world of trade and conversation. There are objects that should be returned, not necessarily the Elgin Marbles, I don’t think.”
The books from the exhibition will be donated to the University of Mosul in Iraq following its completion.
Library of exile runs until 8 September 2020.