Nelson comes to aid of reading room

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EXPERTS RESTORING the British Museum's famous Round Reading Room are using a technique devised by Lord Nelson to make his ships watertight.

When the domed room opened to the public in the mid-nineteenth century it was hailed as one of the most remarkable interiors in London. Since then the original appearance has been lost under three radical restorations.

Now specialist restorers have been able to reveal exactly how the space would have originally looked.

One of the problems they faced, however, was that the dome contained a network of cracks. These were caused by the shrinkage of the dome's papier mache panels and the thermal expansion and contraction of the iron structure supporting the timber joists on to which the panels are fixed.

The museum has employed a method used by Nelson, involving caulk (waterproofing material) made from hemp. Nelson found that the flexibility of the hemp caulk counteracted the shrinking and leaking of the timbers on Royal Navy ships as they headed south to meet the French at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Like the structure of the reading room ceiling, the ships' timbers reacted to the change in climate, expanding when sailing north and contracting when sailing south. Nelson's solution inspired the restorers of the reading room to develop a repair scheme using textiles rather than conventional filler.

The British Museum yesterday unveiled the innovative repairs. Now that the British Library has moved to its new premises in St Pancras the Round Reading Room will be used as a specialist arts library, open to everyone.

The reading room's restoration is part of the museum's redevelopment of its central space, the Great Court, one of the nation's landmark millennium projects. The reading room will open to the public when the restoration of the Great Court is completed in November 2000.

The restoration of the Great Court includes the repair of the interior surface and the reinstatement of the original azure-blue, cream and gold decorative scheme devised by the original architect Sydney Smirke. His 1857 scheme has been uncovered beneath layers of paint from the three previous redecorations.