“I literally ran in and out of the British Museum.”
These were the words of a friend over lunchtime at Herstmonceux Castle.
Mondays were the days all the students rehashed their weekend excursions to London. With such a short study abroad program of only 6 weeks and many of us never having crossed the Atlantic before, our weekends were packed with sightseeing adventures in the country’s capital. And weekend trips to London here and there were definitely not enough to see everything this fabulous city has to offer.
Hence my friend’s comment, which I laughed at because it sounds silly to run in and out of a museum that one could easily spend a full day in, and yet totally understandable because sometimes it’s easier to step in and step out of a place just to say you’ve been there.
Turns out in her haste, she had missed the Rosetta Stone – the crucial text in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the most visited object in the British Museum. I guess it’s easy to miss what you don’t know is there.
“I’ll need to go back now,” she concluded.
I chuckle at this story but I have my own Rosetta Stone that I need to go back for in the British Museum. Except it’s not the Rosetta Stone – it’s something much less easy to miss and therefore that much more embarrassing – the Reading Room.
This gigantic dome room sits in the middle of the Great Court, a two-acre public square. Inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome, The Reading Room is built of cast iron, concrete and glass, and the roof is surprisingly made of papier mâché. Until 2000, it wasn’t even open to all museum visitors. People who wanted to read here had to apply in writing and receive a special ticket by the Librarian to access it. Such people included Karl Marx, Lenin, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, and Oscar Wilde. How I would have loved to step into the space that Oscar Wilde sat in, studied, maybe even penned The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of my all-time favourite books.
Here’s the beauty I missed:
Sadly, I didn’t know at the time what this room was or else I wouldn’t have walked by it in my rush to see other things. Have any of you had a similar experience with a famous sight you accidentally missed out on?
I’ll leave you with some images I did manage to see:
The British Museum Reading Room by Louis MacNiece
Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge —
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years —
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.
Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent:
This is the British Museum Reading Room.
Out on the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting,
Puffing their ruffs and sweeping their tails or taking
A sun-bath at their ease
And under the totem poles — the ancient terror —
Between the enormous fluted Ionic columns
There seeps from heavily jowled or hawk-like foreign faces
The guttural sorrow of the refugees.