Historic British Museum Reading Room Reopens to Public

Reading Room Photograph Diliff Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum’s renowned Reading Room, a cornerstone of London’s intellectual history, has officially reopened its doors to the public. This architectural marvel, once frequented by history’s greatest thinkers, is now accessible for guided tours and general visits.

The Reading Room, designed by Sydney Smirke in the mid-19th century to accommodate the museum’s burgeoning collection of books and manuscripts, was inaugurated on May 2, 1857. Its distinctive circular structure, inspired by Rome’s Pantheon, features a grand dome that was the largest in the world at the time, rivalling St. Peter’s Basilica. Construction began in 1854.

The dome, measuring 140 feet in diameter, is a testament to mid-19th-century engineering. Its glass panels provide natural light. A central desk is surrounded by tiered bookshelves that historically housed thousands of volumes, creating an ideal environment for scholarly research.

Over the years, the Reading Room has served as a sanctuary for intellectual giants such as Karl Marx, who conducted research for “Das Kapital,” and other notable figures like Virginia Woolf, Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, and Lenin. This vibrant hub fostered a culture of learning and inquiry, becoming a symbol of the pursuit of knowledge.

By the late 20th century, the museum’s library collections had outgrown the Reading Room, leading to the relocation of many books to the newly established British Library in 1973. The Reading Room underwent extensive restoration and modernisation, reopening in 2000 as part of the British Museum’s Great Court. This transformation preserved its historical integrity while introducing modern amenities.

The Reading Room is a unique exhibition space rather than a traditional library. It continues to attract visitors from around the world, who come to admire its architectural beauty and historical significance. Exhibitions range from ancient manuscripts to contemporary art, reflecting the diverse cultural heritage of the British Museum.

In recent developments, the Reading Room has been open for general tours after being off-limits to the public. Last year, the museum trialled tours, ensuring they wouldn’t disturb researchers. As of July 2, the room is accessible for walk-in visits, with guided tours beginning on July 23. These tours, accommodating up to 20 visitors per slot, are free and offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Reading Room, completed in 1857, quickly became a world-famous learning hub. Distinguished users included Karl Marx, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Lenin, all of whom found inspiration within its walls.

Between 1997 and 2000, the Reading Room underwent restoration and opened to the public for the first time. Since 2013, it has occasionally served as an exhibition space but has remained closed until now.

Visitors can now explore this masterpiece of mid-19th-century technology inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome. Visit the British Museum’s website to learn more about the Reading Room’s tours.

Top Photo: BM Reading Room Photograph Diliff Wikimedia Commons

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