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British Museum Architecture

Posted on October 10, 2022 – 12:48 pm

Reading RoomThe Reading Room stands at the heart of the Museum, in the centre of the Great Court. Completed in 1857, it was hailed as one of the great sights of London and became a world famous centre of learning.

The Reading Room is currently closed.

Design and construction

By the early 1850s the British Museum Library badly needed a larger reading room. Antonio Panizzi, the Keeper of Printed Books (1837–56), had the idea of constructing a round room in the empty central courtyard of the Museum building.

With a design by Sydney Smirke (1798–1877), work on the Reading Room began in 1854. Three years later it was completed.

Using cast iron, concrete, glass and the latest heating and ventilation systems, it was a masterpiece of mid-nineteenth century technology. The room had a diameter of 140 feet (approximately 42.6m) and was inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome.

Reading Room private invitationHowever, it is not a free standing dome in the technical sense. It has been constructed in segments on a cast iron framework. The ceiling is suspended on cast iron struts hanging down from the frame and is made out of papier mache.

A number of bookstacks were built surrounding the new Reading Room. They were made of iron to take the weight of the books and protect them against fire. In all they contained three miles (4.8 kilometres) of bookcases and twenty-five miles (forty kilometres) of shelves.

Early years

The Reading Room opened on 2 May 1857. Between 8–16 May, the library was opened up for a special one-off public viewing. Over 62, 000 visitors came to marvel at the new building.

Those wanting to use it had to apply in writing and were issued a reader’s ticket by the Principal Librarian. Among those granted tickets were: Karl Marx, (who signed in under the name Jacob Richter) and novelists such as Bram Stoker and .

Restoration and exhibition space

In 1997 the books were moved to a new purpose-built building in St Pancras and the bookstacks were taken down. As part of the development the interior of the Reading Room was carefully restored. This process saw the papier mâché interior of the dome repaired and the original blue, cream and gold colour scheme reinstated.

When it reopened in 2000, the Reading Room was made available to all Museum visitors for the first time. It housed a modern information centre, the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Centre, and a collection of 25, 000 books, catalogues and other printed material, which focused on the world cultures represented in the Museum.

The Reading Room was used for special exhibitions from 2007 until 2013.

Previous exhibitions held in the Reading Room include:

Images from top:

  • William Lake Price, The Reading Room under construction, 1855 (detail)
  • Private invitation to the Reading Room, from 1857

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