Sophie Campbell

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Silence please! British Museum

May 5, 2018
Reading Room Dome, British Museum

To Dr Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum

Dear Hartwig,

I’ve finally done it. Got into the Reading Room of your museum after years of trying (and failing) to peer behind the black drapes at the temporary exhibitions held there.

And what a sight it is. I’ve never really believed it’s one of the biggest domes in the world, bigger than St Paul’s and second only to St Peter’s in Rome when it was built. I believe it now, though. Outside, its size is masked by the stone casing wrapped around it when the books left for the British Library in the late 1990s. Inside it’s colossal.

 

Sydney Smirke's construction, 1850s
Reading Room: books and dome

We all sat in amazement, gazing up at the lobes of the ceiling picked out in a frisky purple light for the occasion. Virginia Woolf described it as ‘splendidly encircled by a band of famous names.’I couldn’t see those. Perhaps she meant the books. But that immense dome of papier-mâché, gilded, plastered, pierced, what a marvel.

The occasion was György Sándor Ligeti’s tongue-in-cheek 1962 Poème symphonique for 100 Metronomes, staged by a team from your last institution, the Dresden State Museums, as part of your excellent two-week April music festival. They said that Ligeti specified the precise brand of metronome to be used and somewhere there are 100 of them in a box, awaiting their chance. This time, sadly, modern plastic ones had to be hired instead.

100 Metronomes starring in the Poème symphonique

They looked like Darth Vaders, or nuns, standing in dark, silent lines on one of the famous desks. They were wound but not started, until the team brushed past like a wind and the great space filled with a soft pattering. The ear fought to impose patterns on the measured ‘tick…tocks’ and the cheeky ‘ticktockticktocks’, but soon gave up.

Then they ran out of steam one by one, until after 20 minutes only one was going. Then it stopped. And there was silence. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Nobody’s phone went off. Right in the centre of that great, busy museum there was nothing. People stared at the ceiling, rested their foreheads on chairs, gazed meditatively, thought.

So please, Hartwig, as you mull over the Reading Room’s future, could it not be a great silence at the heart of London, only to be entered if devices are left outside? No groups. No cameras. No laptops. No phones. Books and paper, and maybe a strict librarian. You could charge, if you had to. Use it for corporate events after hours.

It could be the world’s only Official Silence.

What do you think?

A choir of metronomes

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