Edmund de Waal takes aim at library closures in British Museum installation

The striking installation stands up for the importance of libraries while telling the stories of people forced to flee their home countries

Acclaimed artist and writer Edmund de Waal is protesting against the widespread closure of UK libraries with a boundary-pushing installation at the British Museum.

library of exile is a temporary library filled with more than 2,000 books by writers either exiled within or forced to leave their own countries – including Judith Kerr, Dante and Jewish-Austrian writer Joseph Roth – hailing from nearly 60 countries and in dozens of languages.

As well as hitting out at the closure of libraries (773 so far) the liquid porcelain-walled installation looks to tell stories of loss, destruction and displacement.

“This library celebrates the idea that all languages are diasporic, that we need other people’s words, self-definitions and re-definitions in translation,” de Waal said.

“It honours the words of André Aciman, himself an exile from Alexandria, that he understands himself ‘not as a person from a place, but as a person from a place across from that place. You are – and always are – from somewhere else.”

Visitors are encouraged to do things they would otherwise avoid when visiting libraries, like talking and writing in books that matter to them.

library of exile, which opens this Thursday, was previously shown in Venice and Dresden before being put on display for UK visitors. When the exhibition closes on September 8, the collection will be donated to the University of Mosul library in Iraq which is being rebuilt after it was destroyed by Islamic State.

edmund de waal
Edmund de Waal, originally from Nottingham, inside the installation

The London-based artist is no stranger to the literary world. His bestselling memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes was named the Book of the Decade during Independent Bookshop Week in 2016.

De Waal told The Guardian that the British Museum installation “the most personal and significant thing” he had done, branding UK library closures “violent and vile”.

Alison Tweed is chief executive of Book Aid International, which will transport the collection to Iraq when the books are to be donated. She said library of exile “harnesses the power of books to express the role of libraries in preserving both our cultural heritage and the sum of human understanding”.

She added: “We share his passion for libraries and his vision of restoring those libraries devastated by war and conflict. We are immensely proud that he has entrusted to us his library of exile to ensure it finds a lasting home in Mosul, where its arrival is most eagerly awaited.”