British Museum Reading Room

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Coordinates: 51°31′9.91″N 0°7′37.47″W / 51.5194194°N 0.1270750°W / 51.5194194; -0.1270750

British Museum Reading Room
British Museum Great Court, London, UK - Diliff.jpg
Exterior of the Reading Room viewed from the Great Court of the British Museum.
General information
Town or city Bloomsbury, west London
Country United Kingdom
Construction started 1854
Completed 1857
Technical details
Structural system Segmented domed
Design and construction
Architect Sydney Smirke

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 inside the new British Museum. Designed by Sydney Smirke on a suggestion by the Library's Chief Librarian Anthony Panizzi, following an earlier competition idea by William Hosking, the Reading Room was in continual use from 1857 until its temporary closure in 1997.

Construction and design[edit]

The Reading Room's domed roof is metal framed in segments, and the surface that makes up the ceiling is a type of papier-mâché.[1]

Famous readers[edit]

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, Norbert Elias, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Rimbaud, Mohammad Ali Jinnah,[2] and H. G. Wells.[3]

Current use[edit]

Detail of the ceiling with its oculus

Following the Library collection's move to the new site, the old Reading Room was opened to the public in 2000, following renovation as part of the construction of the Great Court. It houses a modern information centre, the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre[1] and a collection of books on history, art, travel, and other subjects relevant to the museum's collections, on open shelves.

In 2006, the British Museum announced its plans to modify the Reading Room to house a temporary exhibition entitled 'The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army': this modification was designed by the London-based exhibition design company Metaphor. This has involved building a new floor above the existing reading desks. Details of the exhibitions that have been held in the Reading Room are:

  • The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army (13 September 2007 – 6 April 2008)
  • Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (24 July–27 October 2008)
  • Shah ʿAbbas: The Remaking of Iran (19 February–14 June 2009)
  • Montezuma: Aztec Ruler (24 September 2009 – 24 January 2010)
  • Italian Renaissance drawings (22 April–25 July 2010)[4]
  • Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Journey Through the Afterlife (4 November 2010 – 6 March 2011)[5]
  • Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe (23 June–9 October 2011) [6]

The general library for visitors (Paul Hamlyn Library) moved to a room accessible through nearby Room 2, but closed permanently on13 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.[7]

References in art and popular culture[edit]

The British Museum Reading Room has become iconic. It is the subject of an eponymous poem, The British Museum Reading Room, by Louis MacNeice. Much of the action of David Lodge's 1965 novel The British Museum Is Falling Down takes place in the old Reading Room. The 'Glass Ceiling' of Anabel Donald's 1994 novel is the ceiling of the Reading Room, where the denouement is set.

Alfred Hitchcock used the Reading Room and the dome of the British Museum as a location for the climax of his first sound film Blackmail (1929). Other movies with key scenes in the Reading Room include Night of the Demon (1957) and in the 2001 Japanese anime OVA Read or Die, the Reading Room is used as the secret entrance to the British Library's fictional "Special Operations Division".

Probably the first work of fiction in which the British Museum Reading Room plays an important part as a setting is "New Grub Street" by George Gissing, published in 1891.

In short story Enoch Soames, first published in May 1916, an obscure writer makes a deal with the Devil to visit the Reading Room one hundred years in the future, in order to know what posterity thinks about him and his work.

The British Museum and the Reading Room serve as the settings for An Encounter at the Museum, an anthology of romance novellas by Claudia Dain, Michelle Marcos, Deb Marlowe, and Ava Stone.

Virginia Woolf made reference to the British Museum Reading Room in a passage from her 1929 essay, A Room of One's Own. She wrote, "The swing doors swung open, and there one stood under the vast dome, as if one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names." [8]

A panorama showing an almost 180-degree view of the interior of the Reading Room


  1. ^ a b British Museum Reading Room information
  2. ^ Wolpert, Stanley Jinnah of Pakistan, p. 13
  3. ^ Charles Godfrey-Faussett (2004-05-01), Footprint England, Footprint Travel Guides, p. 884, ISBN 978-1-903471-91-3, ISBN 1903471915 
  4. ^ Italian Renaissance Drawings
  5. ^ Book of the Dead exhibition
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Museum libraries and archives, British Museum.
  8. ^ Hoberman, Ruth (Fall 2002). "Women in the British Reading Room During the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries: From Quasi--to Counterpublic". Feminist Studies 28 (3): 489–512. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]