Edmund de Waal: library of exile

12 Mar 2020 – 8 Sep 2020

Regular hours

10:00 – 20:30
10:00 – 20:30
10:00 – 17:30
10:00 – 17:30
10:00 – 17:30
10:00 – 17:30
10:00 – 17:30

British Museum

London, United Kingdom


Travel Information

  • Holborn (500m), Tottenham Court Road (300m), Russell Square (800m), Goodge Street (800m)

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Created as a 'space to sit and read and be', library of exile is an installation by British artist and writer, Edmund de Waal, housing more than 2,000 books in translation, written by exiled authors.


Unveiled to great acclaim during the Venice Biennale 2019, this porcelain-covered pavilion is intended as a place of contemplation and dialogue. 'It is about exile,' says de Waal, 'what it means to have to move to another country, to speak another language.'

From Ovid and Dante to Marina Tsvetaeva and Judith Kerr, the library forms a record of repression while celebrating the response of the displaced. Almost all of the books are in translation, reflecting the idea of language as a form of migration. Each book has an 'ex libris' label so visitors can write their name inside ones that matter to them. The collection can also be explored through an online catalogue where new titles can be suggested.

Alongside the books hangs a quartet of de Waal's own vitrines, psalm, I-IV (2019), holding pieces of porcelain, marble and steel. Their arrangements echo the composition of Daniel Bomberg's 16th-century edition of the Talmud – a central text of Judaism – printed in Venice and notable for holding the Hebrew text, Aramaic translation and commentary on a single page.

The external walls of the library are painted with liquid porcelain into which de Waal has inscribed the names of the great lost libraries of the world – from Nineveh in sixth-century BC Assyria to those recently lost in Tripoli and Mosul. Following its time at the Museum, the books will be donated to the library of the University of Mosul, Iraq, which is currently undergoing reconstruction, with the help of Book Aid International.

Throughout the exhibition run, you can enjoy a rich programme of events, including debates and panel discussions presented in collaboration with English PEN on the themes raised by the library of exile, and a day of free music performances, films, talks, installations and workshops to mark Refugee Week 2020.

Following its display at the British Museum, the books featured in the library of exile will be donated by the artist to the University of Mosul Library, with the kind participation of Book Aid International.


The temporary pavilion is designed as a place of dialogue and contemplation, with visitors encouraged to sit and read the books almost all of which are in translation, exploring the idea of language as migration. The library will be free to visit, continuing the British Museum’s historic connection to libraries over the past 260 years.

The library includes the works of almost 1,500 writers from 58 countries in dozens of languages. And it is still growing. The writers represented in the collection range from Tacitus, Voltaire and Dante to the Jewish-Austrian writer Joseph Roth, the German children’s writer Judith Kerr and the Chinese poet Ai Quing to Elvira Dones from Albania, Hannah Al-Shaykh from Lebanon, Samar Yazbek from Syria to Elizabeth de Waal, Edmund’s grandmother. The walls of the library are made from liquid porcelain and inscribed with the names of the lost libraries of the world, from the ancient Library of Alexandria to the Mosul University Library in Iraq. The books all contain an ‘ex libris’ label for visitors to write their name in a book that matters to them. The collection can also be explored through an online catalogue where new titles can be suggested.

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

The library was first shown at the 16th century Ateneo Veneto in Venice during the Venice Biennale 2019. Following its presentation at the British Museum, the library’s collection of books will be donated to the world-renowned library of the University of Mosul in Iraq upon which restoration work has begun following its near-total destruction by the group calling itself the Islamic State in 2015. The library of exile collection, which the UK’s leading international book donation and library development charity Book Aid International will be transporting to Mosul, will create an iconic and inspirational focus in the newly re-established library - an appropriate final home for a collection themed around the effects of loss, displacement and destruction.

The library is accompanied by psalm I-IV, a quartet of new vitrine works by de Waal. Their arrangement reflects the composition of Daniel Bomberg’s 1519-23 edition of the Talmud, a central text of Judaism, printed in Venice during the Renaissance: notable for holding the Hebrew, Aramaic translation and commentary within a single page.

library of exile is installed in Room 2 at the British Museum, a room which celebrates some of the collectors who have shaped the Museum over four centuries. It is also the room which once housed priceless manuscripts such as Magna Carta, a Qur’an of 1304 and a fifteenth century Haggadah for Passover, as well as works from King George III’s library which was given to the public in 1823. These are now part of the collection of the British Library, which was formally separated from the British Museum in 1997. In housing de Waal’s library within this room, the work speaks to objects in the Museum’s collection from the world’s historic libraries. These include cuneiform tablets from the library of the ancient Assyrian king Ashurbanipal at Nineveh in Iraq, Buddhist paintings on silk from Dunhuang in China, and seals from the Buddhist monastery of Nalanda in India.

Edmund de Waal: library of exile at the British Museum is accompanied by an extensive events programme which will examine the themes of memory, migration and literature, and will include four panel discussions in collaboration with English PEN. The programme and the display have been supported by AKO Foundation.

This project continues the British Museum’s long-standing engagement with contemporary art, examples of which include artists Idris Khan and Ahmad Angawi creating site-specific works for the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World in 2018, and the ground-breaking major exhibition Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman in 2011. In 2019, the Museum acquired 73 portrait drawings by Damien Hirst, and five artworks by the British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, said: “We are delighted to bring Edmund de Waal’s exceptional library to the British Museum. The library of exile addresses questions that matter; it is a space of learning, contemplation, of debate and dialogue, as is the British Museum. We are looking forward to welcoming visitors – and readers – and are grateful to Edmund de Waal and AKO Foundation for making it possible.”

Nicolai Tangen, founder of AKO Foundation says: "At a time when the human race faces unprecedented challenges in terms of climate, migration across borders, and attacks on both knowledge and reason, Edmund de Waal offers a supremely coherent and articulate response.  We are delighted to work in partnership with the British Museum to enable audiences in the UK to engage with this thought-provoking installation, which has already attracted worldwide attention when shown previously in Venice and Dresden.”

Alison Tweed, Chief Executive of Book Aid International said: “Edmund de Waal’s library of exile harnesses the power of books to express the limits of human emotion and the role of libraries in preserving both our cultural heritage and the sum of human understanding. At Book Aid International 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.”


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