The British Museum

An extract from Alan Bain’s Autobiographical writings –

The British Museum

The most desirable thing for students of occult subjects in those days was a ticket for the reading room of the British museum. These were not easy to obtain. One had to get a suitable and influential person to sign one’s application as being suitable and safe to use the facilities of the library. I was very fortunate in that Geoffrey Watkins was only too pleased to sign my application, and so it was that I became a proud holder of a ticket for the reading room of the British Museum Library.

The British Museum is a very imposing building. One approaches it from a long flight of steps and enters through huge doors into a large lobby. In the 1950s the museum in itself was still laid out in the 19th century Victorian style. Since then it has become more of an exhibition than a museum. Everything is designed to ensure an even flow of tourists and visitors through the various exhibits. In my time, however, one could wander about more or less at random, many of the exhibits were close to hand and could be approached or even touched. Nowadays, all too many are tucked away behind screens, or in glass exhibition cases with written explanations of the contents. But I detract. On entering the lobby, directly in front of the visitor were two double doors, fairly indistinguishable in themselves. A man in uniform stood nearby. These doors led directly into the great dome which appeared to house the books. The dome was very high and the room circular. Around the circumference were tiers of galleries along which a person could walk and examine the books which crowded the shelves alongside.


The British Museum Reading Room in 2006, before the library moved to a separate building. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, author Diliff).

These books, however, were rarely used, as the important stock was held in a vast labyrinth of many levels below ground. Having shown my ticket to the uniformed man I was able to enter these hallowed precincts. In those days there were no computers. All the book searches had to be made by consulting various indices. For example, there was an author index, a subject index, and a title index. The classification which has remained with me all my life was that for my chosen subject: Occult Science. Not Mythology, not Superstition or anything at all vague. Certainly, Mythology was available as a subject heading, so the inclusion of a separate category for matters occult showed an insight that was unexpected. For the trustees of the British Museum library the study of things occult were considered scientific, to be approached in a manner much the same as any other science subject. I have held the same view ever since. So-called occult studies invariably contain assertions and teachings which are likely as not very difficult to verify. For this reason a scientific approach is absolutely essential. Needless to say, such approaches are extremely difficult to develop!

As I have said elsewhere, most occult literature was unavailable in the bookshops of the day, and equally scarce in public libraries. But here was a public library where very little was scarce. The problem was where to begin. At that time, my main interest lay not so much in astrology as in the occult ramifications which had been derived from it by way of the theosophical allusions in the work of the astrologer – almost the only astrologer whose writings were freely available – Alan Leo.

I had worked my way from astrology to theosophy to Kabbalah, which, in the bookshops, consisted mainly of two or three important titles. One was “The Mystical Qabalah” by Dion Fortune, plus “The Kabbalah Unveiled” by S. L. McGregor Mathers, and Isaac Myers’ “Kabbalah.” Mention was made by Dion Fortune of the infamous Aleister Crowley, but not: single book by him was to be found. At first it was difficult to find him in the British
Museum, as, being scientific, the museum classified authors by their real names and not pseudonyms, although in some references the latter might be added in brackets. To find Crowley, one had to look under Crowley, Edward Alexander. Once this mystery was solved, a vast quantity of writing – one could not call it all literature – was available to be read. It will come as no surprise to my readers that being young and full of the glamour attached to such subjects, I went without hesitation to the so-called “forbidden fruit”.

Over about a year and a half I worked my way through all of Crowley’s writings. It didn’t take too long for me to realise that a huge amount of his work was written with a tongue in cheek, probably as a subtle means of ridiculing a highly esteemed in which frankly ludicrous ideas were held by so many. Crowley himself was, of course, the originator of many of the same ideas, which probably amused him hugely It must be said, however, that among the dross he had written some useful material not least what I consider to be his major work, “The Book of Thoth,” devoted to the tarot, for which he had designed his own set of cards. The actual artwork for these designs was undertaken by one of his followers, Frieda Harris. His book and his cards – or, perhaps I should say, her cards – are still available today.

There were, it is a joy to recall, many gems in the collection held by the library. To sit at a desk beneath that vast dome to read William Lilly’s “Christian Astrology” in the original first edition is an experience that cannot be converted into words. One book 1 have yet to see reprinted is The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians by Franz Hartmann, an early theosophist and student of magic. This was published in New York in the late 1800s and contained some first-class colour plates representing the tree of life of Kabbalah. A better known work of his is Magic Black and White, which has been reprinted a number of times.

The very process of obtaining a book from the library archive was in itself almost occult and arcane. Firstly, one obtained details of the book or books one wished to study which had to be written on a prescribed form. This was then handed to an assistant who stood on a high dais from which all the activity in that the vast circle could be monitored. It will come as no surprise to learn that obtaining the books and bringing them, together with that the form I had filled in, could take some time. As, more often than not, I visited the museum with a colleague, we would both, having handed in our forms, go to a nearby cafe in Museum Street. Many a discussion and sometimes heated argument took place on these occasions.

On returning to the reading room, we would usually find the books we have asked for placed neatly in the space allocated for us. This consisted of a section of what resembled a long construction of cubicles, each with its own chair, together with the form we had filled in, which was a copy of the original. This was how the museum kept track of who had what books, when they had them, and where they read them. I doubt that such trust could be obtained today.

Next extract: The Joy of Reading


About singinghead

druid, mathematician, blogger, gardener...
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