CPD25 visit to the British Museum by James Atkinson

On the 21th November (that’s what it said on my badge), I was fortunate enough to go on a CPD arranged tour at the British Museum.  Following the British Library’s departure from the site, the Museum was left with nine departmental libraries, many of which are the best in their field.  On this occasion, we visited four of them plus the Central Archives.


After meeting and taking our first trip behind the scenes to gain special sticker passes, we were taken to The Anthropology Library and Research Centre, housed in what was part of the British Library (the reading room, I think they said), and had been re-fitted for the purpose.  This meant it was the most modern looking library we would see.


Our guide told us about the library and we were also shown some of their rare books, including a very nice codex about the Aztecs from the 16th Century.  We were reminded throughout the visit that all the libraries we saw are available for the public to use for free and were told to advertise this space in particular to our students; even if they have no interest in Anthropology, it would make a good, quiet study space.


Next on the tour was the Prints and Drawings Department’s study room and library.   These are held in a lovely spacious room with a large skylight and tall cabinets housing the collection in thousands of boxes (we were shown the contents of one containing Michelangelo’s).  The library itself is tucked away at the back, accessible only to staff.  Unlike the other libraries at the British Museum, many books held by the Prints and Drawings department form parts of the collection, books contain original prints.


Here there is a big problem with storage and, with over a hundred exhibition catalogues alone coming in each year, a number of books are kept at Blythe House.  The library itself, as with most we saw, has a curious classification system- here a kind of map reference system is in place, each book being found by its bay, shelf and position on the shelf.  The Middle Eastern department’s library has a similar system.


And that is where we ventured next (via the building work taking place for the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre next Spring).  The Middle East library is housed in the stunning Arched Room where the British Library once housed their early books collection.  This space on its own is amazing.  It is a Victorian library designed to make best possible use of the available light sources – and so use fewer gas lights and candles.  The room has huge windows to let in natural light (although these were blocked off until recently due to the aforementioned building work – the staff are still adjusting to having extra light) and two griddle walkways to allow light up and through.


Here there were two libraries in a way – one of cuneiform tablets as well as the printed books.  Again, we were shown the rare books (kept separately under lock and key) which included a curious one called The Romance of the British Museum.


In the Central Archives (an L-shaped room in the basement) we were shown records relating to meetings of the trustees- three sets of books containing hand written minutes of the meetings, letters presented and letters generated that are meticulously indexed allowing the reader to easily find items; stereoscopic images of the galleries taken in the 19th Century; reading room items including letters and references sent by Beatrix Potter, Bram Stoker and Rudyard Kipling in application to use the reading room; and plans drawn up when the museum was built, among other items (including the remains of a bomb that took out much of the Coins and Medals Department during the Second World War).


Finally we visited the library of the Prehistory and Europe Department which is, in the main, a most haphazard library.  Although some order has recently been imposed in terms of spine labels and organisation by subject, the collection is still spread across cupboards in corridors and the shelves of the curators’ offices.  Separately a room has recently been set up to house the printed journal and special collections – one of the highlights of which was an item from Hans Sloane’s own collection, which, though it was used to help form the British Library, is now spread across the world.


After all this, with feet worn out but joy in our hearts we returned to the Anthropology library for tea and biscuits – a fine selection!  It was a great visit, and would say that it’s well worth keeping an eye on the CPD events page to see what other treasures come up.

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