The British Museum Reading Room, situated in the centre of the Great Court of the British Museum, used to be the main reading room of the British Library. In 1997, this function moved to the new British Library building at St Pancras, London, but the Reading Room remains in its original form at the British Museum.
Designed by Sydney Smirke and opened in 1857, the Reading Room was in continual use until its temporary closure for renovation in 1997. It was reopened in 2000, and from 2007 to 2014 it was used to stage temporary exhibitions. It has since been closed while its future use remains under discussion.
Construction and design
In the early 1850s the museum library was in need of a larger reading room and the then-Keeper of Printed Books, Antonio Panizzi, following an earlier competition idea by William Hosking, came up with the thought of a round room in the central courtyard. The building was designed by Sydney Smirke and was constructed between 1854 and 1857. The building used cast iron, concrete, glass and the latest technology in ventilation and heating. The dome, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, has a diameter of 42.6 metres but is not technically free standing: constructed in segments on cast iron, the ceiling is suspended and made out of papier-mâché. Book stacks built around the reading room were made of iron to take the huge weight and add fire protection. There were forty kilometres of shelving in the stacks prior to the library's relocation to the new site.
The British Museum Library
The reading desks
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The Reading Room was officially opened on 2 May 1857 with a 'breakfast' laid out on the catalogue desks. A public viewing was held between 8 and 16 May which attracted over 62,000 visitors. Tickets to it included a plan of the library.
Regular users had to apply in writing and be issued a reader's ticket by the Principal Librarian. During the period of the British Library, access was restricted to registered researchers only; however, reader's credentials were generally available to anyone who could show that they were a serious researcher. The Reading Room was used by a large number of famous figures, including notably Sun Yat-sen, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Hayek, Bram Stoker, Mahatma Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Vladimir Lenin (using the name Jacob Richter), Virginia Woolf, Arthur Rimbaud, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum, but it continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997.
Closure and restoration
In 1997 the British Library moved to its own specially constructed building next to St Pancras Station and all the books and shelving were removed. As part of the redevelopment of the Great Court, the Reading Room was fully renovated and restored, including the papier-mâché ceiling which was repaired to its original colour scheme, having previously undergone radical redecorations .
The Reading Room was reopened in 2000, allowing all visitors, and not just library ticket-holders, to enter it. It held a collection of 25,000 books focusing on the cultures represented in the museum along with an information centre and the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre.
In 2007 the books and facilities installed in 2000 were removed, and the Reading Room was relaunched as a venue for special exhibitions, beginning with one featuring China’s Terracotta Army. The general library for visitors moved to a room accessible through nearby Room 2, but closed permanently on 13 August 2011. This is an earlier library that has also had distinguished users, including Thomas Babington Macaulay, William Thackeray, Robert Browning, Giuseppe Mazzini, Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.
A selection of past exhibitions:
Exhibit From To
The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army 13 September 2007 6 April 2008
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict 24 July 2008 27 October 2008
Shah ʿAbbas: The Remaking of Iran 19 February 2009 14 June 2009
Indian Summer May 2009 September 2009
Montezuma: Aztec Ruler 24 September 2009 24 January 2010
Italian Renaissance drawings 22 April 2010 25 July 2010
Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Journey Through the Afterlife 4 November 2010 6 March 2011
Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe 23 June 2011 9 October 2011
Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam 26 January 2012 15 April 2012
Shakespeare: staging the world 19 July 2012 25 November 2012
Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum 28 March 2013 29 September 2013
Vikings: life and legend 6 March 2014 22 June 2014
Ancient lives, new discoveries 22 May 2014 12 July 2015
Germany: memories of a nation 16 October 2014 25 January 2015
Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisations 23 April 2015 2 August 2015
Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns 10 September 2015 6 December 2015
Celts: art and identity 24 September 2015 31 January 2016
Egypt: faith after the pharaohs 29 October 2015 7 February 2016
Sunken Cities: Egypt's lost worlds 19 May 2016 27 November 2016
Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave 25 May 2017 13 August 2017
The exterior of the Reading Room, in the Great Court
CC BY-SA 3.0
In 2014, the British Museum opened its new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that included a specially constructed exhibition space. The museum has been consulting on the future of the Reading Room, but as of June 2014, its future is still undecided.