It was on January 15th, 1759 that the British Museum first opened in the Bloomsbury district of London. The objects first housed in the museum were comprised of the life collection of a doctor named Sir Hans Sloane, who had amassed what he called a “Cabinet of Curiosities.”
The curiosities numbered 71,000 objects; more than half of these things were books and several thousand of them were manuscripts. There were also things to go in a natural history section — dried plants and such — and there were artifacts taken from all over the world.
Sloane didn’t want his collection to be dispersed when he died, so for 20,000 pounds he sold it to the nation, care of King George II.
The iconic round British Museum Reading Room, with its blue- and gold- and cream-colored dome, wasn’t built until nearly a hundred years later; it opened in 1857 and had room for one million volumes.
For the next century and a half, it was accessible only to those who had filled out an application to use the museum’s library. The application required a person to list occupation, purpose of study, and names of people to serve as references of good character.
Among those lucky enough to use the exclusive Reading Room were Bram Stoker (“Barrister at Law,” he wrote on his replacement application), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (“physician,” said he), Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Gandhi, George Orwell, and Lenin — who put down the pseudonym “Jacob Richter” and was initially denied admission because they couldn’t figure out where his reference person resided.
In 1997, the Reading Room underwent a big restoration project, and when it reopened in 2000, it was available — for the first time — to anyone wanting to step inside and take a look.