British Museum Reading Room

Coordinates: 51°31′9.91″N 0°7′37.47″W / 51.5194194°N 0.127075°W / 51.5194194; -0.127075

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

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.

Famous readers

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 Mohammad Ali Jinnah,Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Mahatma Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Lenin, Norbert Elias, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Rimbaud and H. G. Wells.

Current use

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 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. It will revert to its former use in 2012. 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)
  • 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 - 9 October 2011)

The general library for visitors (Paul Hamlyn Library) has moved to a room accessible through nearby Room 2, but will close permanently from 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.

References in art and popular culture

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 Gilmore Girls, the Reading Room is one of Rory Gilmore's favorite places in the world.


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