Museum stories
The Round Reading Room at the British Museum

Very soon after the ‘new’ Museum building was completed in the middle of the 19th century, replacing Montagu House, the need for yet more space became apparent. The inner quadrangle of the new Museum had been intended as a garden space for promenading but it was quickly evident that the area didn’t get enough light and therefore nothing was ever going to grow there.

The inner courtyard of the Museum before the Round Reading Room was built.

It didn’t help that, when the final wing of the Museum was built to complete the quadrangle (the South Front), there was no door to the inner space so access for the public was severely restricted. A plan soon emerged to put a new structure in the quadrangle instead, and a design for a new reading room began to develop.

Planning and construction

1852 sketch by Antonio Panizzi showing a suggested design for the new proposed Reading Room.

The new space was earmarked for library material because the library collection had grown massively under the leadership of Antonio Panizzi (Keeper of the Department of Printed Books from 1838). In 1827, before Panizzi’s arrival, the collection contained 150,000 books. By 1856, when he became Principal Librarian (equivalent to Director today), that number had swelled to 520,000 and all those books needed to housed somewhere.

With Panizzi’s original idea for a new reading room, further refined by the architect Sydney Smirke, funding was sought, and eventually agreed, from the Treasury in 1854. Work began that same year and a photographer was commissioned to capture some of the building works. William Lake Price took photographs of the construction in 1855, including this one showing the building of the Reading Room’s iconic dome.

Building of the Reading Room, 1855. Photo by William Lake Price.

The Reading Room used cast iron, concrete, glass and the latest heating and ventilation systems, making it a masterpiece of mid-19th-century technology. It has a diameter of 140 feet (approximately 42.6 metres) and was inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome. It is not technically a free-standing dome. It was 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 mâché.

This is a drawing of the design for a portion of the ground floor plan…

Design  for a portion of the ground floor plan of the Reading Room, 1850s.

…and this is a drawing of the design for the Reading Room’s beautiful windows, including the colour scheme.

Sydney Smirke’s drawing for the window design of the Reading Room, including the colour, 1856.

The building was finished by 1857 and the first readers were admitted. It officially opened on 2 May 1857, and between 8 and 16 May, it was opened up for a special one-off public viewing. Over 62,000 visitors came to marvel at the new building. Here is a ticket inviting people to come and view the British Museum’s new Round Reading Room.

Ticket to view the new Reading Room on 5 May 1857, with a plan of the new library (including iron bookstacks) on the back.

On the back of the ticket was a plan showing the layout of the new room, including the iron bookstacks which surrounded it.

The ‘Iron Library’ (the bookstacks surrounding the Reading Room) in the 1950s.

The ‘Iron Library’ – the bookstacks which surrounded the Reading Room – was built using perforated iron in an attempt to improve light levels (in an age before electric lighting). It was made up of three linear miles (4.8km) of bookcases, containing around 25 miles (40km) of shelving.

The Reading Room in around 1924. Photo: Donald Macbeth.

The Reading Room could accommodate 302 readers at 38 tables, all radiating out from the keyhole-shaped catalogue desk. The tables were padded and covered in black leather and the floor was covered in a special material that was designed to reduce noise. Access to the main door of the Reading Room was through the Front Hall and into a walkway leading to the entrance. The walkway on both the north and south sides was removed to make way for the Great Court building in the 1990s.

The Reading Room entrance doors and walkway.

Around the oblong structure which housed the Iron Library was an ‘inner road’ which was open to the elements. Some of the iron work was badly damaged during an air strike in the Second World War, and the quadrants of the Iron Library have now all been demolished. Various structures were put into this space over the years, but all were removed, along with remaining the bookstacks themselves, when the Great Court was built in the late 1990s.

Here’s a video of what the Reading Room looked like in 1947:

Notable readers

The new Reading Room was a great success and became an iconic venue in its own right. Notable readers included Karl Marx, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Pankhurst, Bram Stoker, Joseph Conrad, Lenin and George Orwell.

Oscar Wilde’s signature from 1879.

The Central Archive holds many of their applications for readers’ tickets and signatures when they used the library.

Reader applications from Sylvia Pankhurst (1908), Joseph Conrad (1920) and George Orwell (1937, under his real name Eric Blair).

The British Library, the Great Court and exhibitions

In 1973, the British Library officially separated from the British Museum. The library continued to be housed in the Reading Room until 1997, when the new British Library building opened in St Pancras. With this relocation, there was an opportunity to reimagine the Round Reading Room and the courtyard in which it sat.

Preparation works for the building of the Great Court in the late 1990s.

The Great Court scheme was designed by Sir Norman Foster and one of the design briefs was to reveal hidden spaces within the Museum. Lord Foster’s vision meant that the original inner courtyard could be seen again, for the first time since 1857 when the Round Reading Room was completed. The Great Court was opened in December 2000 by HM The Queen, the largest public covered square in Europe. The Reading Room remained a library and resource centre, with books focused on the Museum’s collection and history.

The Great Court, opened in 2000, saw the Reading Room incorporated into the new design.

In 2007 the use of the Reading Room was again reimagined when it began to stage the Museum’s important exhibitions. The exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army was the perfect beginning for this period in the Reading Room’s history, with the display of a selection of some of the iconic terracotta warriors – the most ever exhibited outside of China.

Inside the exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army.

Using the space for exhibitions meant that the Grade 1 listed interior needed to be protected. The desks and shelving were covered up and a stage built over them at the level of the lower balcony. Exhibitions would be arranged on the stage area, with the dome of the Reading Room still visible to anyone looking upwards.

Protecting the Grade I listed building and desks during special exhibitions.

After further exhibitions on the Roman emperor Hadrian, the Iranian ruler Shah ʿAbbas, the Aztec ruler Moctezuma, Italian Renaissance drawings, the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, saints and relics in medieval Europe, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and Shakespeare’s world, the final special exhibition in the space was Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which ended in September 2013.

View of the Museum during construction of the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (bottom right). You can see the Great Court and Reading Room roof in the centre. Taken from the top of Senate House, May 2014.

During this time, the Museum had been building the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, with a new purpose-built exhibitions space, meaning that the Reading Room was no longer needed for exhibitions. Since 2013, the Reading Room has been closed to the public, and the Museum has been consulting widely on what to do with the space.

Looking to the future

In March 2018, it was announced that the Museum would temporarily open the Reading Room as part of the music festival Europe and the world: a symphony of cultures. In the words of the Museum’s Director Hartwig Fischer, its use for performances will allow visitors ‘to experience this atmospheric space in a new way.’

As the iconic Reading Room looks back on over 160 years of history, it’s also looking to the future…