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British Museum Reading Room

Coordinates: 51°31′10″N 00°07′37″W / 51.51944°N 0.12694°W / 51.51944; -0.12694
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British Museum Reading Room
Inside the Reading Room, before its conversion to an exhibition space
General information
Town or cityBloomsbury, London
CountryUnited Kingdom
Coordinates51°31′10″N 00°07′37″W / 51.51944°N 0.12694°W / 51.51944; -0.12694
Construction started1854
Technical details
Structural systemSegmented domed
Design and construction
Architect(s)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 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 2017 it was used to stage temporary exhibitions. The Reading Room was closed to the public again in 2013 and converted for use as the museum's archive, with its future use remaining under discussion until 2023, when it was reopened for guided tours.


Detail of the ceiling with its oculus
A plan of the desks and book storage in the room
An illustration of the old book stacks in the museum before their removal

Construction and design[edit]

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.[1]

British Museum Library[edit]

The Reading Room was officially opened on 2 May 1857 with a 'breakfast' (that included champagne and ice cream) laid out on the catalogue desks. A public viewing was held between 8 and 16 May, attracting over 62,000 visitors. Tickets to it included a plan of the library.[1][2]

Regular users had to apply in writing and be issued a reader's ticket by the Principal Librarian.[1] 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, Marcus Garvey, Bram Stoker, Mahatma Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Vladimir Lenin (using the name Jacob Richter[1]), Virginia Woolf, Arthur Rimbaud, Muhammad Ali Jinnah,[3] H. G. Wells,[4] and Arthur Conan Doyle.[1]

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.

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


In 1997 the British Library moved to its own specially constructed building next to St Pancras railway 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 initial design of the roof was considered excessive at the time).[1][5]

The Reading Room was reopened in 2000, allowing all visitors, 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.[1]

Exhibition space[edit]

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, Paul Hamlyn Library, was 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 Makepeace Thackeray, Robert Browning, Giuseppe Mazzini, Charles Darwin, and Charles Dickens.[6]

A selection of past exhibitions:[7]

Exhibit From To
The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army[8] 13 September 2007 6 April 2008
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict[9][10] 24 July 2008 27 October 2008
Shah ʿAbbas: The Remaking of Iran[7] 19 February 2009 14 June 2009
Indian Summer[7] May 2009 September 2009
Montezuma: Aztec Ruler[7] 24 September 2009 24 January 2010
Italian Renaissance drawings[11] 22 April 2010 25 July 2010
Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: Journey Through the Afterlife[12] 4 November 2010 6 March 2011
Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe[13] 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[7] 6 March 2014 22 June 2014
Ancient lives, new discoveries[7] 22 May 2014 12 July 2015
Germany: memories of a nation[7] 16 October 2014 25 January 2015
Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisations[7] 23 April 2015 2 August 2015
Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns[7] 10 September 2015 6 December 2015
Celts: art and identity[7] 24 September 2015 31 January 2016
Egypt: faith after the pharaohs[7] 29 October 2015 7 February 2016
Sunken Cities: Egypt's lost worlds[7] 19 May 2016 27 November 2016
Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave[7] 25 May 2017 13 August 2017

Closure and reopening[edit]

In 2013, the Reading Room was again closed to the public, this time indefinitely.[14] With its role as an exhibition space superseded by the newer purpose-built World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, the Reading Room was converted for use as the museum's archive. It was briefly reopened in 2018, but for a series of concerts and not for its original purpose.[15] For the rest of the 2010s and early 2020s, the Reading Room remained closed to the public, and museum officials were in discussions on what to do with the space.[14][16]

In 2023, the Reading Room reopened to the public for guided tours. The tours, which are free, last approximately 20 minutes and must be booked in advance. Only one tour is conducted each week, at a specific time on a specific day; during the first wave of tours in March and April 2023, tours only ran on Tuesdays at 11:30 am. Visitors are monitored during the tour and are not permitted to borrow books or take photographs in the Reading Room.[15][16][17]

The exterior of the Reading Room in the Great Court

References in art and popular culture[edit]

The British Museum Reading Room 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 Room is used as a secret entrance to the British Library's fictional "Special Operations Division".

In Sir Max Beerbohm's 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 and Deb Marlowe, among others.

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."[18]

Richard Henry Dana Jr. visited the Reading Room on 10 September 1860 with his London friend Henry T. Parker, and reported that

Parker calls & takes me to the British Museum, to see the Reading Room, wh. has been built since 1856 [Dana's prior visit]. It is the room where students & readers have their desks, & consult the textbooks, cyclopedias, catalogs &c., & from wh. they send orders for books to the Library – the Library not being visited, at all, for study. There is no such room as this in Europe. It is a circle, with a dome, lighted from above, & its diameter is 4 feet greater than that of the dome of St. Paul's. The autographs are now open to the view of all, spread out in glass cases, – as well as much other lit. curiosities. This is the grandest Literary & Scientific institution (not for instruction) in the world. The Reading Room, I told Parker, was a temple to the deification of Bibliology.[19]

The writer Bernard Falk (1882–1960) quotes the British historian Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) as having declared that the Reading Room of the British Museum was a convenient asylum for imbeciles whose friends wished them out of mischief's way.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Reading Room". The British Museum. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  2. ^ Invitation to a private view of the Round Reading Room, British Museum
  3. ^ Wolpert, Stanley Jinnah of Pakistan, p. 13
  4. ^ Charles Godfrey-Faussett (1 May 2004), Footprint England, Footprint Travel Guides, p. 884, ISBN 978-1-903471-91-3
  5. ^ "BBC News | Entertainment | Facelift for British Museum's reading room". news.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  6. ^ "BM confirms closure of Paul Hamlyn library | Museums Association". www.museumsassociation.org. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "British Museum - Past exhibitions". 9 February 2018. Archived from the original on 9 February 2018. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  8. ^ "British Museum - The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army". 1 April 2019. Archived from the original on 1 April 2019. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  9. ^ "British Museum - Archive: Hadrian". 23 March 2019. Archived from the original on 23 March 2019. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  10. ^ "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, British Museum, London". the Guardian. 19 July 2008. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  11. ^ "British Museum - Archive: Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings". 12 October 2018. Archived from the original on 12 October 2018. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  12. ^ "British Museum - Book of the Dead". 28 October 2018. Archived from the original on 28 October 2018. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  13. ^ "British Museum - Treasures of Heaven". 5 September 2019. Archived from the original on 5 September 2019. Retrieved 29 April 2020.
  14. ^ a b "The Round Reading Room at the British Museum". The British Museum. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  15. ^ a b Barker, Sam (23 March 2023). "The British Museum's Secretive Round Reading Room Is Finally Opening To The Public". Secret London. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  16. ^ a b Saville, Alice. "Finally, a chance to peek inside British Museum's famous domed reading room". Time Out London. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  17. ^ "Tickets Alert: Tours of the British Museum's round reading room". ianVisits. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  18. ^ 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. doi:10.2307/3178782. hdl:2027/spo.0499697.0028.303. JSTOR 3178782.
  19. ^ Richard H. Dana Jr., Journal of a Voyage Round the World 1859–1860, Library of America Ed. pp. 861–62 (2005)
  20. ^ Falk, Bernard (1951) Bouquets for Fleet Street, London, Hutchinson & Co, p.157

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]