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BM to revisit Reading Room

The Great Court of the British Museum. Photograph: Alamy.

Mark Brown, British Museum to bring back Reading Room as part of revamp, The Guardian, 5 July 2017

Venue’s director unveils plan to take museum to the next level that will include wholesale redisplay of collection

The British Museum has unveiled plans for a 10-year and beyond transformation which will result in its Reading Room being brought back into use and its galleries telling “more coherent and compelling stories”.

The museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, used the publication of the museum’s annual review to give early details of what amounts to a wholesale redisplay of the permanent collection, an immense logistical task that will be done over time, he said, and without the museum having to close.

“Our vision will be to create a museum which tells more coherent and compelling stories of the cultures and artefacts we display to allow more comparisons to be made across cultures and timeframes,” he said.

“We want a walk around our permanent collection to be a voyage of discovery and learning for all.”

An integral part of the redisplay will be the museum’s Round Reading Room which, after the British Library left with its books in 1997, has proved something of a challenge in terms of knowing how to use it.

The plan is for the Grade I-listed room, where Karl Marx spent long days working on Das Kapital and Virginia Woolf went to find out the truth about women, to display objects from the permanent collection, offering visitors a general introduction to the British Museum, Fischer said.

The museum still has to go through a planning process on how precisely that might be achieved but “rest assured,” said Fischer. “the Round Reading Room is at the centre of our planning … I can promise it will look absolutely stunning.”

From 2007-2014 the Reading Room was used for temporary exhibitions, such as The First Emperor and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the opening of the museum’s £135m conservation and exhibitions centre in 2014 means it is no longer needed for that purpose.

Fischer, who joined in 2016 from the Dresden State Art Collections, said the wider plan was “about taking the museum to the next level”.

The museum had explored the interconnectedness of cultures in temporary exhibitions and in the A History of the World in 100 Objects radio series of his predecessor Neil MacGregor.

“We are planning now to make this an experience when you come to the collections, it is the next natural step. It is big and it has to be extremely well thought through. It is complex … there are 2m years of history.”

Fischer said it was still early days and there was no blueprint. The building and galleries needed renovation and funds would have to be raised.

There are no plans, however, to follow the example of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which closed for nearly a decade in order to carry out its renovation and redisplay.

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