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A new vision for the British Museum Reading Room?

Hartwig Fischer's 10-year revamp could reopen famous room as place of study and learning

23 February, 2018 — By The Xtra Diary

The Reading Room

YOU only have to stand at the grand entrance of the British Museum to see what a draw it is.

With more than six million people pouring up its steps each year, it’s good times for the BM.

Its previous director, Neil MacGregor, was feted as the man who breathed new life into the old institution, and was rightly praised for forging fresh relationships with partner bodies around the world, negotiating loans and co-operative practices, and setting up blockbuster exhibitions.

His replacement, Hartwig Fischer, is in the process of drawing up a 10-year plan for the place to improve how visitors can see the amazing artefacts it holds.

And Diary hopes, finally, this will lead to a new lease of life for one of its greatest treasures – and we are not referring to its extensive collection from ancient Egypt or the hoards of Saxon gold.

No, surely one of the most amazing parts of the museum is actually part of the fabric of the building, the incredible round Reading Room, at the centre of the institution.

Designed by Sydney Smirke and opened in 1857, it was based on the

Pantheon in Rome and its membership alumni reads like a list of the greatest thinkers of recent history.

Among those who have sat at its fabled desks are Karl Marx (he penned Das Kapital there), Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, Virginia Woolf, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw…

But despite this illustrious past, for more than a decade the Reading Room (pictured right) has, like your local branch library, been under threat.

Between 2007 and 2014 it was covered in hardboard and scaffolding to be used for temporary exhibitions that did amazingly well.

Some commentators saw it as a slight swizz: while entry to the museum was still free, you would have to buy a ticket to get into the inner sanctum. But planning permission ran out for this use and, since then, the Reading Room has remained closed, while museum chiefs scratch their heads as to what they could do with the space.

Fischer’s 10-year revamp plan has this conundrum on the agenda.

So what could it be used for? And how can its history and architectural beauty be protected? Some ideas put forward include opening it up again as a place of study and learning.

While books may have made the journey to the British Library in 1997, the museum itself has an amazing collection that students could access. And with thousands of students living and working at the universities in the Bloomsbury area, being able to take a pew at one of the desks, and use its wifi, could give the museum a sense of being at the forefront of academic research.

If the museum can look after – and tell the stories of – the artefacts in its collection, surely it can do the same with an architectural landmark whose hallowed walls have borne witness to such intellectual giants.

Reverting to its original purpose may not bring in extra funds for the museum, though perhaps a sponsor could be found, but how do you quantify in economic terms allowing students to use such a space to read and write the works that future generations will hold as dear as the tomes penned there in the past?

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