First look: new British Library exhibition explores five centuries of breaking news

Breaking the News explores news production and consumption over five centuries, with a design that emphasises the industry’s complications.

A new exhibition at the British Library puts the spotlight on the news – who makes it, what makes something newsworthy, and the increasingly contentious issue of truth and trust in the media.

Breaking the News spans five centuries of the news industry, looking not just at physical newspapers but also radio, television, all the way up to the internet and social media. The exhibition’s 2D and 3D design has been crafted by Northover&Brown.

Courtesy of Justine Trickett

Items on display range from Brexit memes to pamphlets on the English Civil War. Some are taken from the British Library’s own collection; the institution has collections of newspapers and other media dating back to the 1600s. As the exhibition’s lead curator Luke McKernan says, “There has never been a time when news has been so hotly debated, so sought after, and so diverse in its forms.”

Some of the news stories and related paraphernalia covered in the exhibition include 2020’s Stay Alert lockdown campaign (which appeared on newspaper covers) and the late Marie Colvin’s report on the Syrian government’s offensive on Homs in 2012. “Each story featured in the exhibition tells us something different about why the news matters,” McKernan adds.

How the exhibition was designed

Courtesy of Justine Trickett

“We were really keen to create a design that would help support the connections between historical and contemporary news stories,” says Northover&Brown creative director Mel Northover. The design team (comprising Northover and studio co-director Alison Brown) also hoped to evoke the “feeling of a news ‘environment’” she says, which could make clear the links between the featured stories without overwhelming the individual exhibits.

The exhibition has an underlying 2D and 3D grid structure. By pushing and pulling from this structure in a 3D manner, the design team sought to “anchor both the historical print and more contemporary digital news platforms and social media content”, Northover says. The latter doesn’t have a physical form beyond a screen, and so needed to be “conveyed graphically”.

For a sub-section entitled Verification, a vibrant blue, white and yellow wall graphic has been applied – inspired by the section’s lead story on the sinking of the Titanic. That news event had originally been reported as resulting in no deaths, Northover explains. “We wanted to make a visual transition from this section into the next which has the focus very much on how news narratives can be politicised,” she adds.

Courtesy of Justine Trickett

The illustration begins in a relatively organic form – the ship’s final known coordinates surrounded by wave-like shapes – and evolves into a series of ballot boxes on the adjoining wall. “The entire wall acts as an abstract backdrop that helps contain the Verification sub-section whilst piquing curiosity in the same way perhaps a contemporary news publication might, offering a sense of pace and keeping the reader engaged with content,” Northover says.

As the graphic suggests, colour was an important consideration throughout the exhibition. Soft purples have been used in a section about the ethics of news, while clashing magentas and greens surround visitors on a section entitled Chaos.

Courtesy of Justine Trickett

The Chaos section explores two seismic news events, which share similarities but are divided by centuries: the Civil War and Brexit. Here, 3D signs hang above the exhibition – with phrases like Fight4Brexit and #StopBrexit – which “highlight the human voices involved in the debates”, Northover says.

She adds that scale – “knowing when and where to push and pull” – was a key consideration too. As Northover continues, “We like the idea that you’re walking through a news environment but understand the need to achieve a balance between immersion and maintaining space and clarity.”

Courtesy of Justine Trickett

In the penultimate section, which explores how we have absorbed news over the centuries, key images signpost the visitor journey. These depict news environments over time, from 16th century market squares to news feeds on our smart phones. “By creating an abstract illustrated map, we were able to thread the encounters together and transition visually and somewhat playfully from one news space to another,” Northover says.

Breaking the News runs 22 April – 21 August at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. Tickets cost £16, and more information is available on the library’s website.

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