Nope, not a joke about buses, there really are three exhibitions at the British Library at the moment that are free to visit, although oddly, only two of them are listed on the library’s own website.

But if you’re in town and want to take in three fine cost free exhibitions, these are pretty good.

Chinese and British

In the basement of the library is an insightful look at the surprisingly long period that there’s been a Chinese community in the UK.

The first recorded Chinese person in the UK, a letter and hand-drawn map of China, dates from 1687, although it was to take until 1805, and an act of Parliament for the first Chinese person to gain British citizenship.

The exhibition opens with a lot of these early letters and documents and in places eye-opening information about how Chinese people settled in rural England.

For many though, there’s the stereotype of the Chinese laundry and the takeaway, and the exhibition shows not just why so many Chinese people ended up in the laundry trade, but how it slowly transformed into the takeaway – often the same families switching industries. Initially often fish and chips, but later the classic Chinese Takeaway took off.

This exposed more people to Chinese food and culture, and cookbooks started to teach us English folk how to cook decent food. An early Chinese cookbook from 1943 that’s on show adjusts recipes to account for the likely lack of certain ingredients in shops at the time — such as replacing soy sauce with marmite!

I was also surprised to learn that the first non-white man to play for the England football team had a Chinese father. Frank Soo served in the RAF and played professional football in the 1930s and 40s.

As a display, it doesn’t shy away from some of the British prejudices over the centuries, yet I doubt there will be many people visiting who won’t leave with a fresh respect for how people from the other side of the world adapted and settled in the UK.

The exhibition is open until the end of April 2023.

Hampi: Photography and Archaeology in southern India

This is a small photography exhibition that can be found on the upper floor of the library behind the main reception.

It’s just a single wall of black and white photos but ranges over nearly a century showing the archaeological site of Hampi, in southern India.

After flourishing for over 200 years, in 1565, the city was abandoned, and although now in ruins, the city still attracts visitors, and the exhibition shows off the architecture and the work that’s still ongoing to uncover its history.

The exhibition is open until 22nd January 2023.

Proud Words

This is a small exhibition in the library’s Treasure gallery, of a couple of glass cases showing some of the 1970s and 80s literature from LGBTQ+ groups campaigning for civil rights.

It’s both a look back at a time when being gay was seen as strange and maybe even a bit dangerous, but can also be a look at design and typography adopted by small print runs of often home produced pamphlets and small newspapers.

A handful of them may even look familiar from typical tabloid outrages at the time about some of the publications which seems so weird to our more enlightened eyes today.

It’s odd that equality needs to be fought for, but this collection reminds us of the damage that can be caused by human prejudices.

Although that Capital Gay describes HIV as the “US disease” reminds us that prejudice exists on both sides of the coin.

There’s no closing date on the exhibition sign.

Christmas opening hours

The British Library will be closed 23rd-27th December and 1st January, but is open normal hours the rest of the time.

There’s also the Alexander exhibition, which you have to pay for, but it’s worth it.


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