The great Library of Alexandria had a Museum. The British Museum also once had a library, the circular Round Reading Room, which sits at the heart of the Museum and shares the same dimensions at the Pantheon. When the British Library moved to Kings Cross ‘the life was sucked out of the Round Reading Room’, as one eminent museum director said. The Museum’s Pantheon had been marooned. The story goes that when Norman Foster was interviewed for the Great Court project he drew a heart in the circle of the Reading Room. His roof is a great piece of engineering but the centre of the Museum has remained ‘a container with no content’.
So now the Museum of Marco Polo has re-imagined the Great Library at the heart of the museum – with the contention that museums are as much about ideas as they are about objects, and that the conveyors of ideas are codes – in words and songs, and in markings such as cuneiforms and alphabets. No accident that ‘in the beginning was the word’. The ability to codify is one of the characteristics of our species – to use words and symbols to think – to make libraries.
The BM contains the DNA codes of our thousands of ideas. It has the earliest tablets, from cuneiform onwards and including every form of carving, embossing, writing and printing, including seals, sticks, pens, brushes and print blocks, from analogue recording to the digital. It is our 21st technologies that allow us to bring to life the pantheon of ideas behind the stelae and illuminated manuscripts, and to remake this Library in ways that all visitors can interact with.
Imagine the Round Reading Room combining real artefacts with the ritual of the Apple Store, giving us the ability to pull every book off the shelf virtually; with manuscripts that unroll and pages that turn; and around the upper level an LED frieze inserted into the book cases that decorates the room with sentences in every language.
Thus the Round Reading Room, which was built to the dimensions of the Pantheon in Rome, becomes again the ‘Library of Libraries’. It is the Museum’s Gallery of the Word and (when we lay it out flat) also a Mappa Mundi of human ideas, starting with cuneiform and ending with the iPad Mini.
And so the Museum gets a heart transplant.
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