The King's Library was a royal collection of books created by King George III and donated to the nation. A gallery, named after the collection, was built at the British Museum in 1827 to house them. It is the oldest room in the Museum and now home to the permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the world in the eighteenth century.
The original collection and gallery
The King's Library, a collection of over 60,000 books, was formed by King George III (1760–1820) and given to the nation in 1823 by his son King George IV.
When the library was donated there was not enough space to house it in the original British Museum building. This led to the construction of today’s quadrangle building, designed by the architect Sir Robert Smirke (1781–1867).
The room for the King’s Library was the first wing of the new building to be constructed (1823–1827). It was on a grand scale: 91m (300 feet) long, 12m (41 feet) high and 9m (30 feet) wide, with a central section 18m (58 feet) wide. Its great size called for the pioneering use of cast iron beams to support the ceiling.
Originally, it was not intended to be a public room. There were two entrances, one at either end of the room, and 12 reading desks to be used by the library assistants.
The central section of the room was meant to consist of 12 columns made from Aberdeen granite. The first four were bought, and are still in place, but the cost of polishing them was so expensive that no more were purchased.
In 1997 the books were transferred to their new home in the King’s Library Tower in the new British Library building at St Pancras, London. The books currently occupying the cases in the King’s Library are on long term loan from the House of Commons library.
Restoring the King’s Library gallery
Careful restoration work between 2000 and 2003 revived the original room to its previous glory of the 1820s, in time to celebrate the British Museum’s 250th anniversary.
Repairs to the oak and mahogany floor and classical architectural features have refreshed the space. Hundreds of square metres of plaster were cleaned to restore the yellow and gold ornamentation and the re-gilded balcony.
Two hundred kilometres of wiring (twice round the M25 motorway) enabled a subtle lighting system to be installed, which aims to complement the newly-restored colour scheme.
The result was that two centuries of use and London grime were washed away and a major permanent exhibition, using thousands of objects from the Museum collection to show how people understood their world in the Age of Enlightenment, was created.
In 2004, the King’s Library, now known as the Enlightenment Gallery, won the Crown Estate Conservation Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects. The judges said, “The restoration of the room, and its conversion to an exhibition about the history of the Enlightenment and of the early collections of the Museum itself, have revealed it in its full glory as one of the finest rooms in London.”
The restoration project and new exhibition were made possible by the generosity of Simon Sainsbury, The Wolfson Foundation and Francis Finlay and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Pidem Fund, The British Museum Friends, The John Ellerman Foundation and many others.
Further material was lent by the Science Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Linnean Society of London, The Royal Collections Trust and The Ashmolean Museum.