A fountain of culture

July 17, 2016

Of the British Museum Library in Birmingham and freedom of speech

A fountain of culture

The British Museum Library in London is awesome, but no one who has been to the new library in Birmingham will gainsay that it is one of the most outstandingly well-designed buildings and that when you enter it; you feel a sense of serenity.

Incidentally, it was inaugurated by Malala Yousafzai just under three years ago.

From the outside, during the day, it looks like three huge gift boxes in a wrapping paper produced with a stencil, but at night, the geometrical pattern, lit subtly, makes it look like a glittering fairy-tale structure.

Getting around the building is easy with lifts at all floors in addition to ramps, escalators and sloping travelators, and, if you are like me -- stairs. It also has parent and baby rooms with changing and feeding facilities. It has a studio theatre and a contemplation room, a quiet space for use by all visitors, regardless of faith, for contemplation or prayer.

A unique facility that I have not come across in any other library is that at all formal desks in the reception area, there are induction loops to amplify speech for people with hearing aids. These loops are also available in the Studio Theatre.

So, if you want to enjoy a quiet read -- comfortable seating arrangements are available on every floor -- study for a qualification, start a business, research your family tree, discuss social or organisational matters with your friends or strangers in one of its many meeting rooms, organise a banquet, or merely contemplate the design of its amphitheatre floor echoing the distinctive frieze that wraps around the building, the Library of Birmingham is where you want to be.

Rising through the upper part of the library’s central rotunda, the scenic glass lift takes you up to the seventh floor where there is a garden terrace with quiet places to sit and savour the excellent view. The terraces on the floor are planted with a variety of species to provide colour throughout the year. This includes fruits, vegetables and herbs on the ‘discovery terraces’ to provide a focal point of learning about where food comes from.

But the joy of joys for me is the Shakespeare Memorial Room on the ninth, the top floor of the building.

The Shakespeare Library was founded in Birmingham in 1864, during the centenary celebrations of Shakespeare’s birth. The Birmingham Shakespeare club donated a small Shakespeare collection to the city to be housed in the city’s Central Library. Unfortunately, the building was gutted within a few years. The present Shakespeare Memorial Room was built as part of the redesigned Central Library, which reopened in 1882.

It is one of the most exquisitely designed rooms I have ever seen in a library. The credit goes to John Henry Chamberlain (no relation to Chamberlain, the politician) who, with his partner William Morris, was the architect of the Memorial Room.

From the outside, during the day, the Library of Birmingham looks like three huge gift boxes in a wrapping paper produced with a stencil, but at night, the geometrical pattern, lit subtly, makes it look like a glittering fairy-tale structure.

The Victorian Gothic design, intended to suggest the Elizabethan style with carvings, marquetry and metal work representing birds, flowers and foliage, all perfectly proportioned, gives the room an awe-inspiring aura. Chamberlain was renowned for his skill in designing stained glass, metal work and furniture. He was also a founder member of the Shakespeare Club.

Birmingham’s Central Library which housed the Memorial Room was demolished in 1984. Only vigorous protests by the Victorian Society and several councillors saved the Memorial Room. Architects got together to make several measured drawings; the bookcases were carefully dismantled and stored.

Nine years later, the best architects were entrusted with the task of recreating the room using the majority of components which had been in storerooms of the Public Works Department. Experts were engaged to recreate the panelling, repairing it where necessary. To recreate the central arches, the curved top of the wooden panelling was erected and a grand template made. The plaster work was recreated from fragments of the original and photographs. The designs were coloured by hand; the stained glass is an imitation of the original. I mention this only because it was pointed out to me; my layman’s eye would not have been able to detect the difference.

This refined and rare structure with its tastefully ornate domed ceilings has now found its permanent place in the new Birmingham Library. Shakespeare was born 20 miles away from Birmingham, in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was a Midlander, and the Midlands have produced a loving and befitting tribute to the greatest dramatist the world has ever known.

The library has 43,000 books of Shakespeare and a huge collection of illustrations which are housed in storerooms. The open access material from the collection can be seen on the third floor.


It would not be incorrect to say that the West now offers more opportunities for free speech than any other time. Anyone can write a book full of scorn and mockery on practically any subject and if he is not lucky enough to have it published, splash it on YouTube, Facebook or any other electronic avenue.

One of the best tenets of real democracy is that you can disagree or even dislike your neighbour’s views but you defend his right to hold his opinion.

Such freedom is not available in the so-called democracies of The Third World. We, in our part of the world cannot agree to disagree. Apart from the official censors we have self-appointed guardians of morality who are ready to pounce upon any book, any journal, and any pamphlet which, in their eyes, contains material that they consider sacrilegious and therefore blasphemous.

A new book, Free Speech, which has just been published, has created a bit of a stir because it suggests the freedom of speech is on the retreat in England. Timothy Garton Ash has produced what has been described as an encyclopaedic study on the freedom of speech. Garton Ash, an Oxford don maintains that the various curbs and boundaries imposed by political correctness has led to restriction on free speech. Islam and its Prophet, for example, is one subject you cannot discuss freely.

I have not yet gone through the book which is a kind of a manifesto for how we can best create conditions on which we can agree or disagree. Given the recent assault on free speech the arguments in its favour are overwhelmingly lucid. Literature, science, politics and human cooperation in all forms are hampered if we cannot express ourselves freely. The geniuses who have changed the course of history would not have been able to do so if they had been cautious of expression.

A fountain of culture