AS A GRAND FINALE to the series of celebrations marking the British Museum's 250th anniversary, the magnificent King's Library reopens this month after a three-year, 8 million [pounds sterling] restoration programme.
The Grade 1 listed room, designed and built by Sir Robert Smirke in 1823-27, is one of the finest surviving examples of neo-classical architecture in London. At 300ft long and 41 ft wide, it is certainly die largest. Commissioned as the first (east) wing of Smirke's new British Museum, the Library was designed and built specifically to honour and house George IV's gift to the nation of his father George III's prestigious library. But after the King's books were removed, and re-located with the rest of the British Library to dedicated premises at Euston in 1998, the room seemed devoid of purpose, a vast empty corridor through which visitors traipsed to get to the ethnographic collections.
'The refurbishment of the King's Library for the benefit of the public has been a priority for the Museum,' says Kim Sloan, Principal Curator of the restoration and re-presentation project. 'This elegant and imposing room, with its allusions to Athena, goddess of learning, and her Greek city-state, then considered to be the height of political, social, artistic and cultural achievement, was designed not only to house the library, but also to house a national gallery of paintings on its upper floor, making clear the Museum's intention to be a Universal Museum,' says Kim, "The architecture is so important, we wanted to bring back the original feeling and sense of the room, where it is itself appreciated as exhibit No. 1'.
Because of this, it was clear from the outset that what replaced George III's books should be centred on the eighteenth century. Though a national treasure, the King's Library was not originally designed to be a public space. Only a small number of gentlemen scholars could gain access to the encyclopedia of knowledge contained in George III's books. The new permanent display, 'Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century', tells the story of the genesis of the British Museum itself, among other things, paying due attention to the elite group of Britons, mostly members of the Royal Society, who were behind its creation and establishment.
'Why people collected in the eighteenth century is the most important point to get across,' says Kim Sloan, 'that and how they did so and to what purpose.' The new display takes 'a long view' of the eighteenth century, spanning the last years of Hans Sloane (whose collection forms the original basis of the British Museum) to 1830, when the room was first opened, and when Romanticism began to replace the empirical approach more widely.
The space is subtly divided into seven themed sections, which include Art and Civilisation, Classifying the World, Ancient Scripts and Ancient Religions. 'The Birth of the Natural World' looks at the exploration of natural history in making sense of God's divine plan, the development of classification systems, new approaches to medicine, palaentology, etc. 'We are reminding people how important natural history was in the eighteenth century,, and has it was part of how they saw the whole world. …