One of the most striking things about visiting the British Museum (apart from all the spooky bandaged mummies and looted colonial artefacts, of course) is the moment when you exit the galleries and come out blinking into its vast, glass-covered central atrium. At the centre of this light and airy space is a beautiful domed Victorian building. But although many visitors climb its steps and hope for a glimpse inside, they’re usually turned away. This is the nerve centre of the museum: the archive, open only to scholars with a really good reason for dredging up the secrets of the past.
Now, all that’s going to change. The British Museum has started to offer free tours that’ll give you a glimpse inside this storied space, with its grand central dome and its curving, book-lined walls. Originally it housed the British Library, which means that you’ll be walking in the footsteps of writers who studied there, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Karl Marx, Bram Stoker and even Lenin, who studied there under the pseudonym Jacob Richter, a name he used to evade the Tsarist authorities.
When the British Library moved to its new purpose-built home in St Pancras in 2008, the round building was briefly used for British Museum exhibitions. But in 2013, that stopped, and the building was used to house the museum’s archive instead: thousands of books, papers, prints and objects that document its history since it was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1759.
The free tours will be the first time the public has been admitted in a decade. They will last for 20 minutes, and give you a chance to marvel at this 1857 building, which was constructed in segments on a cast iron framework, in an impressive feat of Victorian engineering. They probably won’t give you enough time to find a cursed Egyptian book, the reading of which will cast untold doom on you and your associates, but dream big! Life in this city is what you make it.
Discover more London museums with our handy guide.
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