Sunday, December 06, 2009

London splendors--and one disappointment

Last week I was in London, mainly to visit museums and bookstores. I had a lovely room overlooking Tavistock Square, a location strategically placed midway between the British Museum and the British Library at St. Pancras. During the sixties I was fortunate enough to live in London for four years, toiling away at my dissertation and supporting myself by translating books. I return every four or five years to renew my acquaintance.

London has never looked better. Yet there is one change I observed that disconcerted me. The change was at the venerable British Museum. Let me explain.

The present building in Bloomsbury, with its giant colonnade overlooking Great Russell Street, stems from a design created by the neoclassical architect Sir Robert Smirke. Construction began in 1823. Over time, some collections that were intended to find a place in the building went off on their own. The founding of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square provided a separate space for the nation’s paintings. Natural History decamped to South Kensington.

In my salad days, though, the British Museum yoked together two important functions. The vast collection of objects, reflecting the global reach of the British empire, were deployed around the central rotunda, constituting the Reading Room for those consulting the books. The books remained there until the British Library moved to St Pancras in 1998.

The paterfamilias of the books was a man sometimes called the "second founder" of the British Museum, the Italian librarian Anthony Panizzi. Under his supervision, the British Museum Library (now the British Library) quintupled in size and became a well-organized institution worthy of being called a national library, one of the largest libraries in the world. At Panizzi’s request, the quadrangle at the center of Smirke's design was filled with a noble circular Reading Room of cast iron, 140 feet in diameter.

The original arrangement, with the books at the core and the objects arrayed around it on all four sides somehow captured a central feature of the British national character in which the written word has always ranked as the supreme art.

The departure of the British Library to a new site at St Pancras, finally achieved in 1998, provided the space needed for the books. It also created the opportunity to redevelop the vacant space in Robert Smirke's 19th-century central quadrangle into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court--reputedly the largest covered square in Europe--which opened in 2000.

When I visited the Museum five years ago, one could stroll from this court directly into the restored and now resplendent Reading Room, where I had spend so many happy and productive hours during the 1960s. Last week, though, this experience was impossible. The space had been meanly carved up for exhibition space, currently exhibiting a display of Aztec art. This show was interesting enough, but clearly in the wrong place. To be sure, one could still glimpse some details of the dome above, but the results of the amputation were terrible.

The problem is partly economic. The major museums in London are still free (as ours mostly are not), so revenue must be secured from other sources, including overpriced restaurants and special exhibitions. Entry to the Moctezuma show, now desecrating the Reading Room, costs about twenty dollars.

There is hope that a different space will be created for exhibitions at the museum. At that point, I earnestly hope, the Reading Room can be restored to its former glory. Then, and only then, will I give a donation to the Museum.


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