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Burned, redacted and superseded – Blickling Estate turns the page on banned books

PUBLISHED: 12:47 28 September 2018 | UPDATED: 12:59 28 September 2018

The Word Defiant in Blickling's library      Picture: Rah Petherbridge

The Word Defiant in Blickling's library Picture: Rah Petherbridge

Rah Petherbridge

Visit Blickling Estate over the next month for your last chance to see the challenging, immersive art installation taking over the house – all inspired by books

"The Word Drowned" is part of Blickling's immersive art installation Picture: Rah Petherbridge

In the cellar, books lie on the floor covered in ash as the echoes of a bomb boom in the distance.

In the Chinese dressing room, maps tumble out of a wardrobe, unravelling across the wood-panelled floor as a sat nav blares out erratic instructions.

In the library, hundreds of books propel themselves from the shelves, their broken spines upended in a heap as a speaker mutters a language I don’t know in a tongue I’ve never recognised – fragmented, hurried, lost.

This is, as you might imagine, not my average trip to Blickling Estate – but it is one of my favourites.

It’s all part of The Word Defiant!, an immersive art installation unveiled by the National Trust in partnership with the theatre company Les Enfants Terribles and its aim is clear: it wants to make a point about our relationship to books – both those housed in the estate and more widely.

The Word Defiant! explores our lost connections to books and maps and how many of them have been superseded by technology such as sat navs and computers       Picture: Rah PetherbridgeThe Word Defiant! explores our lost connections to books and maps and how many of them have been superseded by technology such as sat navs and computers Picture: Rah Petherbridge

“The Long Gallery and book collection at Blickling needs significant conservation work to secure the room, stabilise the environment and re-interpret the books,” explains Antonia Gray, senior marketing communications officer for the project. “We hope that having an installation with such impact will alert people to the challenge we face and gain support for the work ahead.”

But the installation is more far-reaching, combining examples from Blickling’s library itself, as well as other contemporary, real-world examples of books under threat.

“The stories have all been developed with the history of the Blickling book collection in mind,” continues Antonia. “It uses examples of recent events from around the world to help visitors explore the significance of books, their changing place in the modern world and our relationship with them – now and in history.

“The installations relate to books that have been banned, burned, redacted, drowned, neglected, superseded or at risk of loss over the past 10 years. We’re not looking to pass judgement, but instead provide an opportunity for people to reflect on what books mean to them.

“Books are being destroyed deliberately and have been throughout history because they are seen as subversive and potentially powerful and dangerous by some regimes. If you take the burning of books as an example, this represents an element of censorship and usually follows cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question. Sharing these stories will help to paint a picture of how books are being lost and why. All the threats are most definitely still present today.”

"The Word Burned" represents the destruction of a public in library in Mosul, Iraq Picture: John Gandy

While some of the installations are subtle, others – such as The Word Defiant! itself – are breath-taking in scale, detail and immersion. “The Word Burned”, which takes place in one of Blickling’s cellars and represents the destruction of a public library in Mosul, Iraq, is particularly moving. “We’ve spoken to a lot of visitors about their experiences and have found with many that the most thought-provoking and emotional installation is “The Word Burned” in the cellar,” says Antonia. “For some, it has reduced them to tears.”

Once visitors have explored the various installations in the house and Temple – which focuses on old, out of print or archived books – they are invited into the Reflection Room, where they are able to see examples of books from the Blickling collection that have been under threat from each of the seven themes displayed elsewhere throughout the house.

“In the case of banned, the book on display is The Index Librorum Prohibitorum – list of prohibited books – which was first published in 1559,” says Antonia. “It was issued by the Catholic Church and contained a list of prohibited books which Catholics were forbidden to read or possess.

“Interestingly, someone has put a small pencil cross against some of the authors’ names. We’ve wondered if this is perhaps the owner of the book noting down which authors he definitely should read precisely because they had been banned!”

While the installations might not be what the average visitor expects – who would prefer a more conventional heritage experience – its power to disrupt and challenge is, in fact, the point. “The installation is designed to be noticed,” says Antonia. “To create debate about the power of books and prompt important questions, such as how important books are to us today.

“Whether positive or negative, the art has got people talking and reacting about the importance of books in our society and has brought in a more diverse audience, which is great to see.”

The Word Defiant! is open daily at Blickling Estate from 12-5pm until Sunday, October 28, 2018.

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