The British Museum’s Reading Room

I found the following story in Susan David Bernstein's "Too Common Readers at the British Museum", from Victorian Vulgarity. Eds.Susan David Bernstein and Elsie B. Michie. Burlington: Ashgate. 2009.

This isn't a reblog, people! Finally, some of my own research is on here! This story discuses the British Museum's expanded reading room, and the vulgar crowds who came to use it. Lower classes! Women! People who made any sort of noise! Shocking!

"The physical space of the Reading Room at the British Museum changed from the long rectangular room in use from 1838, to the domed round reading room which opened in May 1857. Its glass roof, a consequence of the growth of the plate-glass industry in the 1850s, enhanced visibility, a quality which extended reading hours . . . Along with the proximity of readers' desks, the lofty dome amplified a resonant acoustics which broadcast noises and odors . . . A few years after the debut of this public space, the press began carping about readers, including 'descendents [sic] of the horse-leech's daughter,' [aka, people who are never satisfied and still] and their 'too common' corporeal noises from mucous membranes and bronchial tubes in distress to interminable scraping of boots" (102).

"Part of the original design of the room included two desks marked 'for ladies only' . . . Gender-assigned seating was unevenly enforced since there were more women readers than designated desks for them. Consequently, the mixing of genders throughout the room became the target for jibes about 'fair' readers transforming the national library into a flirting gallery. A letter to the Editor of The Times protests this lack of containment: 'not content with this privilege, many of them invade the other portions of the room, and mingle with us male students, to our very great discomfort, for they gossip not a little, and flirt and ogle a good deal'" (102).

I love the idea of women going WILD in the British Museum, objectifying the men. "We're outta the kitchen, now, suckaaaaaaaaa."

The above cartoon is called "Interiors and Exteriors". No. 5. Valuable Collection in the Reading-Room, British Museum" Punch 1885.

Bernstein says of it:

"Only one female reader is discernible in the throng pictured in this cartoon as she sits perched like a Pre-Raphaelite stunner on the back of her chair, her hands resting on a book, A Handful of Honeysuckle A. Mary F. Robinson published in 1878 this collection of poetry which provoked a flurry of notice across literary London. Whether Robinson's title is included in the cartoon as a pun on the reader-insects buzzing around the staff fixtures in the cartoon, or to allude to this space as a beehive of text makers, this sole female figure as the Reading Room showpiece does not attract the attention of surrounding male readers" (106).


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