Goodbye to the British Museum's Round Reading Room?
A few days ago I got to see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum. Old cynic that I am, I was ready to be decidedly unimpressed – and to come away judging them not quite up to the classical stuff I was used to.
In fact I was gob-smacked. The show is brilliantly displayed – and you get a brilliant sense of closeness to the objects (until, that is, you cross the magic electronic line which sets the alarms off, embarrassingly).
I was also pleased to go to an exhibition about which I knew absolutely nothing. I know the BM prides itself on giving you the historical context for all its treasures. But I ignored all that. I have quite enough chance to be learnedly contextual when I’m looking at a classical show. Here it was wonderful fun just to gawp.
Though I’ve since then read this week’s TLS article on the “army” by John Keay, and I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t perhaps have looked more carefully at the labels. I’d missed the obviously crucial fact (and an obviously crucial crossover with Greek sculpture) that all these figures were originally brightly painted.
But what struck me almost as much as the objects was the setting. The show is mounted upstairs on a temporary floor above (I suppose) the carefully preserved desks and catalogues of the old Round Reading Room of the BM.
I’d been one of the very best lovers of that room – emotionally connected to it by the pages of thesis written there, by the assignations set up in its wonderful panopticon, and by the afternoons spent sleeping off good lunches bought me by older and richer readers when I was still in my 20s.
Maybe, I thought, seeing this show, the Reading Room could find a permanent new use.
When the library moved out of the BM to its new premises on the Euston Road (formally opened in 1998), I was one of those who felt most strongly that the marvellous Reading Room that had been a home from home to Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf and many others should stay – as it had been designed – as a library.
When Norman Foster transformed the Great Court, the Museum received a large donation from Paul Hamlyn to turn it into a visitor’s library (the first time in its history that the ‘great unwashed’ were to be let into this temple of learning). It was a noble thought, but it never really took off (among the unwashed or anyone else). I may have gone at the wrong times, but I have never seen the “Hamlyn Library” throbbing with readers like it used to do in the old days.
I still feel very attached to the old place. But seeing the success of the terracotta army show, unlike others, I did begin to think that maybe mankind would be better off with Karl Marx’s desk carefully photographed and removed – and some other splendid exhibitions moved in (without the bother of constructing a decking over all the library fitments).
There’s a touch of hypocrisy on my part here. I’m currently sporting a Victorian Society badge, which reads “Save the Ambridge Pews”… a reference to the plans of the modernising vicar in Britain’s favourite fictional village to remove the nice Victorian pews from his church to make way for a badminton court (vel sim).
The transformation of the Reading Room would be a bigger act of vandalism in many ways. But I now think, ten years on, that’s what I’d back.