For the British Museum, the relaxation of the lockdown has come just in the nick of time, for this weekend also marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Great Court.

When the museum was created in 1759, the central court was a garden, but a century later it was started to be filled in with the British Library, and the great reading room opened in 1857 sealing the courtyard’s fate as a storage space for books.

For 140 years the courtyard remained hidden from view, until the British Library’s departure in 1997 triggered the opportunity to recapture the courtyard as a new public space at the heart of the Museum. Designed by Foster + Partners, the £100m development was the final major Millennium Commission project to open in 2000, opening on 6th December 2000.

(c) British Museum

The conversion wasn’t without some controversy — one of the interior stone portico restorations was accused of using French stone instead of English stone — and while it created a furious fuss amongst academics, I would challenge anyone to tell me which of the four gateways into the Great Court is the “wrong” one.

Apart from the sheer size of the space, one of the biggest changes is how people arrive in the museum if coming in the front, still up the stairs, but what is now a small space to pass through was once the main entrance. A small cramped gloomy hall, with a small door at the back leading to the library, is now a taster for the sunlit space that draws people swiftly inside.

Also, they didn’t just clear out the courtyard, they also dug downwards, creating a series of lecture rooms underneath the Great Court. The Reading Room was also restored, although it’s since been converted into an exhibition space, which while making a lot of commercial sense has sadly hidden the grandeur of the space – not to mention, ruining one of the best views of the Reading Room from the restaurant at the rear of the court as they blacked out the windows.

It’s weirdly difficult to remember the museum without the vast space in the middle. I can just about remember the old entrance and the door to the library with its long claustrophobic corridor, almost as a strange dream where things were not quite right. Today, most images of the British Museum online focus on the Great Court, and the huge space it created.

Not bad for what had for most of its life been a warehouse for the library.

The museum reopens on Thursday (3rd Dec), and as with most venues now, you need to book an entry ticket in advance.

The Museum released some little known facts about the space:

The library which was homed in the courtyard was formally separated into a new body – the British Library – in 1972. It wasn’t until 1997 when it moved to a new home at St Pancras. The Library’s move facilitated the Great Court development.

It takes about two weeks to clean the whole roof. It gets cleaned every three months because being in the centre of London, it gets very dirty. Cleaners can’t walk unaided on the roof – instead, they have to be hooked on by a harness to a network of cables that run over the roof, which can’t be seen from below.

The current design is not the first at the Museum to have proposed using a glass roof. In the early 1850s, Charles Barry, the joint architect of the Palace of Westminster, proposed roofing over the courtyard with sheets of glass supported on 50 iron pillars. Inspired by the famous Crystal Palace of 1851, it was to have served as a Hall of Antiquities but never came to fruition.

The roof is made up of 3,312 individual panels of glass, and no two panels are the same shape. They are held together by four miles of steel and there’s enough glass up there to glaze around 500 household greenhouses.

The roof stands 26.3 metres above the floor at its highest point.

At two acres, it’s the largest covered square in Europe

The 315 tonnes of glass that make up the roof are supported by a 478-tonne steel structure.

During construction of the new space, 20,000 m3 of demolition material was removed from inside the courtyard, equivalent to twice the volume of the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

On completion, the redesign grew the Museum floor space by 40%. For the first time in more than 150 years, the new two-acre Great Court gave visitors the chance to move freely around the main floor of the Museum.

When The Queen opened the Great Court in 2000, the Visitor Services staff had the chance to put on the Windsor Livery, which can be worn on special occasions. It was granted to the Museum by King William IV in 1835, and consists of a blue coat with a scarlet collar and cuffs

Engraved into the floor is an extract from ‘The Two Voices’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It says “and let thy feet, millenniums hence, be set in midst of knowledge”

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4 comments
  1. Richard King says:

    Its very easy to spot the difference between the stones. Portland Stone is white, wheras the French stone is a cream colour.

  2. Chris Rogers says:

    The Round Reading Room is supposed to be being returned to open access, as it was a for a few short months after the GC was finished but before it got converted into exhibition space – after all, now the WCEC is opened in the NW corner they have the exhibition space. It’s a shame one of the key features of the scheme heavily trailed at the start – 24/7 public access between Gt Russell St and Montague Pl via the GC when the BM is shut – was not carried through.

  3. Adam says:

    Does anyone have any more information on the Windsor Livery? I have searched fruitlessly.

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