In this special edition of ‘10 minutes with’ celebrating the opening of the British Library’s ‘Breaking the News’ exhibition, Maddy Smith talks about how she became a curator, her favourite piece from ‘Breaking the News’ and her star-studded fantasy dinner party…
How did you become a curator?
I completed an MA in Library and Information Studies, specialising in rare and historic books, before joining the British Library and gaining valuable experience as a rare books cataloguer. I have worked in the Library’s Printed Heritage Collections team as a curator for six years.
What does the role entail?
The Printed Heritage Collections department is responsible for the nation’s incredible collection of Western books and other printed items from the 15th century to the year 2000. I specialise in 17th and 18th century material.
As curators, we acquire new items, catalogue them, make the collections accessible onsite, digitally and through our public programme, oversee conservation projects and more.
How have you balanced displaying different source types, particularly digital, in the exhibition?
From the earliest printed newspaper to hashtags on Twitter, we wanted to create an engaging balance of historical and contemporary content. We use news stories from the last five centuries to tackle the big questions asked about news today, from the chaos of the English Civil War alongside social media memes about Brexit.
This exhibition is the first time that such a rich tapestry of British news has been on display for the public and we had a great time working with the exhibition designers to bring different formats to life.
What are the challenges of curating an exhibition?
The British Library has such vast collections that it is always a challenge to only pick 100 objects to display. The exhibition was originally scheduled for April 2021 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the earliest newspaper being published in Britain. However, we had to postpone it for a year due to COVID.
Still, this gave us an opportunity to spend more time developing the exhibition and bringing it up to date as much as possible.
What is your favourite exhibit?
My favourite item is the earliest surviving piece of printed news in Britain. It is a news pamphlet containing a blow-by-blow account of how Henry VIII’s army defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.
It predates conventional newspapers – these weren’t invented until a century later. The British Library’s copy is the only complete copy known to exist.
Why does journalism matter?
Journalism and news are cornerstones of democratic society. News itself is, and has always been, topical, contentious and sometimes controversial – we invite visitors to come and discover that history for themselves and find out what it means for us today.
Why should people come to the Breaking the News exhibition?
Breaking the News explores 500 years of news in Britain, asking vital questions about its role in society and what it means to us.
From the Great Fire of London to the 2020 Stay Alert campaign, the exhibition delves into the national collection of news to bring you the headlines and news stories that shaped their eras. Some will be familiar, some will be brand new – but they all help us explore how we make and understand the news.
You’re a journalist for a day – what would you cover?
I’d cover the climate emergency. We have a section of the exhibition spotlighting individuals who have fundamentally changed the news agenda, from journalists to activists.
Greta Thunberg and her tireless campaigning to encourage the world to take action on the climate emergency has inspired millions and continues to do so.
Fantasy dinner party guests?
William Shakespeare, Barack Obama, Rosa Parks, Queen Elizabeth I, Freddie Mercury, Margaret Atwood, Oscar Wilde, Jon Snow and Louis Theroux.
If you weren’t a curator, what would you be?
That’s an easy one! I’d be a gardener.
Gym or gin/what’s your guilty pleasure?
The Pitch Perfect film series!