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My Top 5 picks At The Living Letters Exhibition 

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

Living Letters: Correspondence then and now is a free exhibition held at Lakeside Arts. It explores correspondence from the present day such as emails, all the way back to the medieval period, documenting life, death, marriage, and business. It seeks to capture our connections and showcase the breadth and depth of human relations. 

In addition to this, it offers guides on how to write a letter, from giving instructions to children or to those who wanted a letter to be just right. Letters, after all, could make or break a relationship, business or otherwise!  

We might often imagine people of the past being distant and different from ourselves, but these letters demonstrate how we shared similar thoughts and feelings with people of the past. Letters were how we shared the mundane, our life events, and even gossip! They demonstrate how we used to connect and communicate in a variety of ways and themes.

Here are my top 5 picks from the Living Letters Exhibition: 

Royal Correspondence 

Ever fancied a go at reading the handwriting of royals? Within the display cases, there are 2 letters from 2 queens, almost 300 years apart. The first is a letter from Queen Mary 1st and the second, a letter from Queen Victoria. Both are almost as illegible as each other, but so fascinating in their history. The mere thought that both Mary and Victoria wrote those letters and touched the paper is simply captivating.  


The exhibition explores both birth and death and the most obvious evidence of this is the Victorian mourning envelopes. They are decorated with a plain black border to warn the recipient of the bad news before they read the contents. Do you think this kind of warning would have been helpful? 

‘to be burnt’

The most striking testament to human decision-making in the exhibition is the letters that were saved from the flames. Those that contain information that was never meant to be read beyond the recipient (hence their title) never mind for the next couple hundred years. The collection even holds a letter with objections to a man marrying Florence Nightingale (which was meant to be destroyed). The marriage did not take place!  

medieval letter c.1259

This letter was not signed by hand but by the wax seal of the author. You can see these seals as men riding on horseback, demonstrating that even at a time when people lacked literacy skills, letters and writing were still valuable tools in life and politics. 

invisible ink

You might have a distant memory of using invisible ink in your childhood (or at least wanting to!). Well, these letters pre-date the early 2000s! Within a display case, there is held a letter dating from 1667/8 where its contents were hidden using invisible ink. The letter beside it explains how to reveal the secret message and proves that secret letter writing goes back way further than we may have originally thought. 

You can explore more of the exhibition in person and online. You can also access other collections by taking a trip to Manuscripts and Special Collections, Kings Meadow Campus. (Free transport via the Hopper Bus for UoN students!) 

This exhibition was jointly curated by the University of Nottingham Libraries, Manuscripts and Special Collections, and Professor Lynda Pratt, School of English, University of Nottingham. 

Living Letters is open until the 3rd of March 2024. 

Lakeside Arts, Western Gallery. 

Hannah Kane

Nottingham '25

Hannah is a 2nd Year Biblical Studies and Theology Student at Nottingham. Her articles range from reviews to culture to the nuances of every day life. In her free time, she volunteers at Nottingham Castle and Wollaton Hall, and can often be seen avoiding hills on campus at any possible convenience!